Review by Gary L. McDowell (email)
SLOUCHING IN THE PATH OF A COMET
Sage Hill Press, 4841 Fifth Ave North, Grand Forks, North Dakota 58203; ISBN# 978-0-9773447-1-0, 2007, 103 pp., $12.95, paper
Yeats once wrote, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Many readers, scholars, writers, and others have been arguing lately that 'poetry is dead,' that what qualifies as poetry in America these days is nothing more than hyped-up rhetoric disguised in fancy language and autobiographical nonsense. Well, Mike Dockins' debut collection, Slouching in the Path of a Comet, has something to say about that. Dockins' book is humorous and quirkily irreverent, but it is also a beautifully tender, personal exploration into one man's lyrical interpretation of the world. And in Dockins' world, poetry is alive.
The quarrels in a typical Dockins' poem, a lyric poem of great inquiry or unabashed insight mixed with imagistic leaps and bounds, are not with a deity or with another person but with the poet himself, his wide-angled, pulsing poetic world. In the seventh section of the lengthy prose poem, "Eleven Gin & Tonics," the poet gracefully acknowledges the rhetoric of time while attempting to reconcile the present and the future:
I can't see tomorrow from here, but I can smell it: juniper and dust. And I can hear something cackling: me, my lime-pulp muscles. The clock shimmers: a distant star, or a close-by star. Either way, unreachable.
The mystery of time is a prevalent subject in Slouching in the Path of a Comet. Dockins seems less concerned with linear time and more concerned with lyrical time, time limited not by minutes and seconds but rather by the utterance of breath, the confusion that results from being unable to define today versus tomorrow in any concrete linguistic way. The first word of each line in the poem "Unfinished Letters" begins with the word Dear. The result is that each line reads as the first line of a letter, a letter addressed to an inorganic entity, an animal, an article of clothing, writers and presidents, and many other things and people. The effect this has on the reader is one of being lost in time. Take this section of the poem as an example:
Dear crow on a power line, tomorrow I shall do nothing.
Dear parallel universe, who endures me there?
Dear Laramie bigots, you shall be pistol-whipped & crucified.
Dear drunk hook-up, your panties do not glow.
Dear nervous breakdown, I want to come inside you.
Dear centerfield, my mitt has been ravaged by moths.
Dear industrious ants, tomorrow I shall do nothing.
Dockins sends us reeling through several fixed-time events: a one-night stand, a nervous breakdown, a nature hike. What happens as we sprawl through this world is that our sense of the past becomes intertwined with the present, or even the future. No letter in the poem's world is ever finished, no letter is ever lengthened beyond the opening line; we are willing and thankful prisoners in Dockins' personal quarrel with time where time never equals zero, time never collapses upon itself, and time never stops or begins but continues forward always.
Throughout Slouching in the Path of a Comet I was constantly amazed at the ease, clarity, and wittiness with which Dockins switched and morphed forms. There are examples of double abecedarians (more on those in a moment), a whole section nonetheless; prose poems, large, small, and list-like; as well as the more traditional lyric in free verse. Dockins has control over his voice, is able to project his voice, a voice of calm, lyrical grace, into seemingly any poetic form. His wit is contagious as are his morphing poems.
If I were forced to give a criticism, I might choose to pick on the section of the book which is titled, World on Fire: Double Abecedarians. The double abecedarians that make up the section sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed (I'm thinking of "Dead Critics Society" as one example, as it relies on using writers' names, works, and traits for the meat of the poem), but for the most part they don't feel too forced; I kept thinking as I read them, which isn't usually true of abecedarians, let alone double abecedarians, that these are actual poems, and good poems indeed. Devoting an entire section of a first book, some eight pages, to a form that's historically done poorly and amateurishly is a big risk, but Dockins has the guts to do it and the chops to pull it off, though I stick with my initial reaction that they aren't as impressive as other parts of the book.
Dockins isn't limited in his forms. He breaks the usual patterns associated with the prose poem in two of the more fun poems in the collection, "Seventeen Jills" and "Sixteen Jacks." The two poems are list-poems in prose that speculate on the emotional and physical lives of a contemporary Jack and Jill. The poems, which follow one another directly in the book, allow an unspecified amount of time to pass between each numbered section (hence the titles of the poems, i.e. there are seventeen numbered sections in Jill's poem) therefore giving the reader time to gather all the bits and pieces and translate them into an ironic, irreverent narrative. But there's more to these poems than humor. A slow breakdown of the lyrical voice occurs in each poem. The narrator is attempting to refocus human empathy, human voice, and within this attempt rests the honesty of Dockins' lyric voice:
Thinking winds her. Theories of stellar procession make her itch. When asked about Nietzsche's abyss, she nibbles a doughnut. Plate tectonics?―look at those cute shoes. She speaks in cartoonish dialogue bubbles. In subway cars & elevators, this can be suffocating.
What impresses me most in this, the fifteenth section of "Seventeen Jills," is the brutal honesty the narrator possesses. He's not one to mince words, to create false identities. The obvious battle between the sexes that mark these two poems is clearly visible in the above quoted section. But Dockins isn't afraid to tackle large subjects, even those like gender stereotypes.
The prose poem, in Dockins' hands, is a beastly form, a form unwillingly to settle for easy truths and assumptions. They are occasions of humor, narrative, and lyrical exploration. In this way he reminds me slightly of Russell Esdson, only Dockins tends to mine reality more frequently; and in his reality Dockins finds great moments of clarity and imagistic brilliance.
Before I leave and just flat-out recommend that you buy Dockins' book, I want to touch on one more poem. As with most of the other free verse poems in Slouching in the Path of a Comet, "Schoolhouse" maintains a great mix of wit and seriousness. The poem is a sincere look back at childhood, at the events that mold and shape us as we grow to adulthood. The fractured narratives that make up the poem move from young childhood stories to teenage dramas:
High school was a factor of x2+5x+π
divided by the cube root
of Napoleon's endoplasmic reticulum
multiplied by 50 squat thrusts en la biblioteca
minus The Catcher in the Rye--
& the calculator was busted.
While hard to put a finger on Dockins' direct influences [aside from maybe the later Beats (see "Counting Sheep" and "Another Lost Generation") and the Transcendentalists (see "Poem of High Latitudes" and "Poem of Low Latitudes")], it is in his free verse where the likes of Stephen Dunn and Billy Collins show their influence. "Schoolhouse" showcases Dunn's trademark way of embodying childhood memories in quirky ways and Collins' often used tactic of magical wit and humor, but even with the ironic and irreverent humor, there's still a magical cadence, a muscular lyricism that carries "Schoolhouse" through the eyes and ears and deep to within the heart. It is, in this reader's humble opinion, the duty of poetry to carry emotion, language, and the life of the lyric deep to within our hearts. Mike Dockins not only carries us with him through his heart, through his music, and through his quarrels with himself, he also let's us in on a little secret: the future of poetry, folks, is not only alive, it is thriving and in more than capable hands.
Gary L. McDowell is currently the Assistant Poetry Editor for Mid-American Review, and is the author of the chapbook, The Blueprint (Pudding House, 2005). His poetry is forthcoming in
In Posse Review, The Southeast Review, Ninth Letter, The Yalobusha Review, Caffeine Destiny, and others and has appeared recently in No Tell Motel, Pebble Lake Review, Bat City Review, and others. He has written previous book reviews for Mid-American Review, and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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