Thursday, April 09, 2009

Chris Hutchinson on Jeramy Dodds

Like many, I enjoy contemplative, epiphany-seeking poetry. Poetry whose contents and formal properties collude to make art and psychological reality appear as one. A lovely fiction! And I duly appreciate those empirically obsessed practitioners who squeeze their idiom for every last drop of conventional utility while sifting the bric-a-brac of the quotidian world. The mirror held up to nature, whether external or internal, is a wonderful thing! Hamlet thought so. But what of poetry that admits chance? Poetry that eschews a singular perspective to dwell and deal in what Keats famously termed “Negative Capability”? Poetry whose contents rock against rhetorical authority like punk tenants at war with their landlord? Archly playful poetry of malleable architecture where the arrangements and structures of consciousness are teased forth and disturbed, and established tropes, farcically recalibrated? What about the poetry of Jeramy Dodds in his debut collection Crabwise to the Hounds?


The tubas are full of fog and fallen thoroughbreds.
There are no dogs near the dentist’s office
due to the pitch of the drills. A poem
is meant to replace what the olfactory erased.
But it always comes out like a Gilbert-without-
Sullivan song.

In the birdbath my reflection sprains
with each plop of rain. We don’t find it odd
that mule saddles are made from cows?
But the moorhen is two birds killed
with one act of kindness.

Above all, the clouds are like tennis skirts,
fenceposts dark where dogs piss their names.
Her mouth a doily-gagged coal hole. No squawk
as my palm kowtows her gullet to the block,
her hind high for our singsong.

Now, if I tap-test the mic, and tell you all,
I’ll know the cassettes of our joy are socked away
in the secret drawers of my boudoir. O you
can’t tell someone just how lonely he is,
but a moorhen sure can.

I love how this poem goofs with our expectations. “The tubas are full of fog” is not atypical as far as poetic images go, and I can easily imagine these tubas in terms of foghorns or breath on a cold day. But then, after smoothly crossing the alliterative passage “full of fog and fallen,” we arrive at “thoroughbreds,” the opening line’s terminus. In an instant the image has slipped from the comfortably figurative into the surreally far-out.

Though Dodds’ surrealism is more than a series of random juxtapositions or Jungian archetypes pulled though a syrupy dream-logic. He also “sprains” the surface of ‘truthiness,’ presenting us with peculiar facts: “There are no dogs near the dentist’s office due to the pitch of the drills,” and “A poem/is meant to replace what the olfactory erased.” These statements, while possessing an aura of veracity, tease us with the shifty nature of their epistemological significance. Nor is Dodds above making pop-culture quips: “But it always comes out like a Gilbert-without-/Sullivan song” or refiguring common proverbs: “But the moorhen is two birds killed/with one act of kindness.” At every step, the poem lures us in with the outwardly familiar only to twist it into something else—sometimes dark, sometimes humorous.

Rather than jack hammering toward epiphanies or trolling the depths of the unconscious for leviathans, it’s as if the poem wants to call attention to our own cognitive processes. How the metaphoric and imagistic opulence of lines like “Her mouth a doily-gagged coal hole,” lights up the imagination more than it elucidates any external reality. The world per se is not made strange here; instead, our interpretative habits are being jolted. This also occurs in the Byzantine ambiguities of certain passages: “No squawk/as my palm kowtows her gullet to the block,/her hind high for our singsong.” These lines squirm through the fingers of our sense driven intellect. The curious use of “kowtows” invites a myriad of associations—fawning, worship, obsequiousness—which are seemingly incongruous with the sadism involved here. Poor moorhen: there is an implied violence in the meaning and, at the same time, a delicious cruelty to the meaning.

In the last line of the last stanza, the return of the moorhen seems to ask the reader to construe the entire poem in terms of this eponymous bird. But rereading the poem with this in mind, I recalled these lines from Emily Dickinson: “And through a Riddle, at the last — /Sagacity, must go.” So Dodds’ moorhen—mischievous, mercurial—riddles our habitual expectations—literal and literary—and leaves us deliriously flummoxed. Confronted with such disparate images, metaphors and frames of reference, we are stripped of everything but our capacity to find pleasure, and perchance a bit of sagacity, as we pass from the familiar into the unknown.
Chris Hutchinson is the author of two books of poetry. His most recent collection, Other People’s Lives, published by Brick Books, comes out this fall. With a freshly minted MFA from Arizona State University tucked under his belt, Chris will soon be heading back to Vancouver where he hopes to survive on rainwater.


Rodney DeCroo said...

I like poems that "jackhammer toward epiphanies." For us untutored folks maybe you could explain in more detail what you mean by-

"it’s as if the poem wants to call attention to our own cognitive processes."

Chris Hutchinson said...

Hey Rodney! I expect that you actually prefer poetry that doesn’t “jackhammer,” meaning poetry that’s not too heavy-handed or obvious about trying to push its discoveries onto a reader.
What do I mean by “it’s as if the poem wants to call attention to our own cognitive processes”? Simply that the poem makes us more aware of what we think we know, or perhaps more importantly, of how we know what we think we know.

Chien Bâtard said...

Well, does it call to attention our cognitive processes though? Didn't Stein do that? And with much greater leaps?

Chris Hutchinson said...

I’d argue that most good poetry, in ‘making it new’ (granted, an assumption), in some way or other shines light on or even disrupts our habitual ways of seeing and thinking. Isn’t that the point? I’m casting a wide net perhaps. But I’d say that “calling attention to our cognitive processes” is not the exclusive project or purview of any specific poetic camp or style, at least not in my way of thinking. Yes, Stein is a great example because she demonstrates how linguistic sense can be unhinged at the level of syntax. How her poems—I’m thinking of Tender Buttons as the most obvious example— foreground the connective tissues of the language, and in so doing expose the intrinsic mechanisms in how we read and understand language. And if the history of poetry is the history of breakthroughs and innovations, then Stein should rightly be called the grandmother of modern(ist) American poetry. But is the nature of her project really so different than say, for sake of argument, Al Purdy’s? Purdy who might be considered a ‘hybrid’ poet before his time? Who quite bizarrely merged a high romantic rhetorical style with colloquial diction and Canadian subject matter? He leapt, he broke with convention in his own way, and he dared to disturb the universe. It’s a stretch, obviously, and the ways in which reading Purdy makes us more epistemologically self-aware are less explicit perhaps than they are when reading someone like Stein. But by bushwhacking a new path to the proverbial waterfall, I’d argue that Purdy, along with all good poets, carves out new neural pathways in the reader’s brain (this may be literally true). Some poets do this explicitly, others more implicitly, meaning the reader is made either more or less aware of how his or her thought processes are being messed with, energized, or challenged, etc. And I’d say that Dodds’ poems do a fair amount of shifting around in this territory—messing with, energizing, and challenging our habitual modes of thinking—sometimes sneakily, sometimes more obviousl; making him a tricky bird indeed.

Chien Bâtard said...

Oh, you're prodding the beach rubble, Chris. But in a good way. Hybrid I have all sorts of problems with, a kind of thin, irritating depression being the symptom for starters. As for Purdy, well, as for Purdy. Lots to praise there in the colloquialism and attention to the regional (among other things), but cognitive work? No, can't see that. Example?

Chris Hutchinson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rodney DeCroo said...

Hi Chris!

What I don't understand is in what way he makes us more aware of what we know or what we think we know. I just don't see it.

I mean, if it lies in his bringing together unlikely objects like tubas and fallen thoroughbreds, well, isn't that the sort of thing poets are always doing- fusing apparently unrelated objects together through language to make something new?

I don't feel that there's anything particularly new in associating tubas and fallen thoroughbreds. I mean it doesn't challenge me to think about poetry in different ways, I mean, it sounds like a line that could have been write by Lorca in Poet in New York or some of Neruda's early surrealist work.

I think all successful poems by definition alter our perceptions of things don't they? I guess your point is that this poem makes us think differently about how we know the world-through the medium of poetry-meaning its concerns are with poetic theory?

Anyhow, as you know, I'm just a reader of poetry. I'm not familiar with the current crop of new ideas/ theories regarding poetry circulating through the universities so I've probably missed something.