Review by Catherine Staples
WORKS & DAYS
by Dean Rader
Truman State University Press
100 East Normal Avenue
Kirksville, MO 63501-4221
2010, 81 pp., $15.95
It’s hard to say what I love most in this glorious debut volume; is it the glorious Frog & Toad poems, the love poems, or the one-on ones with mentors—Stevens, Pound, and Wright? What’s clear is that re-reading only intensifies the delight of Dean Rader’s Works & Days. There’s something reminiscent of John Donne in Rader’s poems, the earnest spiritual questing of the sonnets and sermons counterbalanced with delightful and unexpected wit. Contemplate the marriage of “Batter my heart” with the playful “Mark but this flea…” and you’ll get a sense of his range.
I think what first won me to this book was the authenticity of Rader’s voice and a striking ease in shifting, swift changes of tone. He is like a skilled mid-fielder in fluent stop and start moves. “Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral,” the opening poem, is masterful in its modulation of tone: “I am traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s funeral/ But all I want is to write a poem about Stevens.” I love the way that second line alters the first; the bare facts of the day spool loose with yearning. We don’t know why Stevens is crucial, yet we do not doubt the necessity. Rader draws us elbow-close with a vivid snatch of air flight reality: “The elderly woman next to me / In 7D has been peeking at this poem / For several minutes.” We’re right there with him, flush with memories of past flights. Cheekily, he continues, “I don’t mind, / because the next line is this: / she will die before I do.” Suddenly, we are grinning at the wit of this shrewd “cure,” and then, like quicksilver, his tone drops darkly, “All of us on the plane could get there/ In seconds. In the reverse burial that is this sky.” These are beautifully deft shifts in tone, masterful line breaks, all of which build to the essential question:
…What I need is to ask my grandmother—
Her entire life a believer—if, in that flash of black light,
In that dissolving instant she had the opposite doubts
Of Stevens; if she renounced the supreme fiction, the emptiness
Suddenly so clear, beyond the dividing and indifferent blue.
(“Traveling to Oklahoma…”)
Spiritual inquiry runs throughout this volume and it’s ever present, if not always overt, as Rader’s home currents in San Francisco. The book takes its title and structure from the early archaic Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days. Hesiod gives advice for a life of honest work as well as sound instruction in things like seafaring and agriculture; Works and Days is not unlike Virgil’s Georgics in this respect. The cosmic dimensions that frame the ancient poem can be glimpsed in works like “Ocean Beach at Twilight: 14” and “Hesiod in Oklahoma, 1934.” The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes Hesiod as a “surly conservative countryman, given to reflection….who felt the gods’ presence heavy about him.” In Rader’s book, it’s the characters of “Frog,” “Toad,” and even “Snow” who are, by turns, reflective, impatient, surly, or enthralled by ontological and metaphysical questions.
Frog, however, wondered why
he was Frog and Toad was Toad.
Frog knew who he was,
but this strange morning
he feared he was the wrong one.
(“Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness”)
Rader has re-invented Arnold Loebel’s characters. The best friends are far more than the voices we’ve rendered reading to our children. They are grown up, truer versions. Remember that Loebel scene when Frog—exasperated by the long wait for Toad’s hibernation to end—simply rips the winter months off the calendar and wakes Toad? Well, a similar lyric spirit, arch and insouciant, is alive and well in Rader’s debut volume. It’s the delightful mix of earnest inquiry and wickedly funny humor that makes this book so much fun to read.
No one spreads your butter like Toad
His heart is jelly, his tongue is jam.
He’ll nibble the crust right off your bread.
(“Frog and Toad Sing the Birthday Blues: 38”)
Many of the love poems are kindred spirits. One of my favorites is “Waking Next to You on My 39th Birthday or The Other Arm”; and of this feast, I won’t give away so much as a crumb.
Catherine Staples teaches in the Honors program at Villanova University. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, The Southern Review, Commonweal, Third Coast, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and others. She is the recipient of the University of Pennsylvania’s William Carlos Williams Award, two APR Distinguished Poets’ Residencies, and The New England Poetry Club’s Boyle/ Farber Award. Betsy Sholl selected her chapbook, Never a Note Forfeit, for Seven Kitchens Press’ 2010 Keystone Prize; it is scheduled for release in May.