Unexpected Shiny Things
by Bruce Dethlefsen
101 pages/81 poems
reviewed by Ed Bennett
In April of 2009 I had the pleasure of reviewing Bruce Dethlefsen’s book, “Breather”. I said then that he was a rare poet in that he had the openness in his language of Whitman as well as the clear, short line imagery of William Carlos Williams. He used these considerable gifts to examine the occurrences and objects that move through our lives with a slightly skewed, humorous viewpoint.
It is with pleasure that I begin this New Year with a review of Bruce Dethlefsen’s latest book “Unexpected Shiny Things”. His vision is as acute as ever and one can feel the emotional scale, from grin to grief, in a very personal way. In “Hummingbirds”, he ends a list of Comparisons with:
you know sometimes though
I made the world go ‘round
simply by walking on it
and pushing backwards just a little
with each deliberate step”
Simply by walking on it, as we all do, and we join him in nothing less than moving the world, or so it seems.
Childhood is another area where Dethlefsen shares his experiences knowing full well that we all had them. In “Astronauts” he places the language of space exploration against a backdrop of school recess on a “moonscape playground” where each fledgling astronaut feels the freedom from the mother ship and mission control “at least until the bell rings”. The wistfulness of the language and the staccato lines of the penultimate strophe has the sound of a middle aged child’s recollection, one where we all enjoy the freedom of our daydreams until the realities of the bell calls us back to our obligations.
In “From the Principal’s Desk” we see the extent of his memory not only of his childhood, but of the feelings running through the narrator as he hears the canned principal speech we sat through every first day at school:
“okay then – welcome back to school
it’s going to be a wonderful year you’ll see
with new hopes and new friends and new dreams
so hey say hi to me in the hallways
and always remember the principal is your pal”
Like “Breather”, this latest book is made up of five sections. The fourth section, “Unexpected Shiny Things”, does set this book apart from his others. Bruce Dethlefsen lost his son, Willi, in June of 2010. This section of the book contains 12 poems that explore the terrain of his grief. While Dethlefsen has handled death and dying as themes, he uses this section to recollect those times they spent together. Men are notorious for hiding emotions. While this poetic voice does not keen or wail his anger at the gods, Dethlefsen astutely surrounds these poems with memories. In “Shiny Things” he states:
“I seek objects that shine
collect and hold them in my hands
assorted coins that shimmer
crows so bright they start
the fire burning in the sky
my son his brilliant eyes
I turn them in the light
then hide them in my heart
This is not the hubris of a Greek Hero. In fact, as he tells the stories of a baseball stitch, a fallen tree or an old Monte Carlo I am amazed at the discipline in the poetic voice as well as the sweet movement of each word in each line. I have read poems from Bruce that define him as comedian, lover, even Poet Warrior. These are the poems of the Poet as Father, not a grieving father as much as a proud father. These 12 poems are worth the price of the book.
Whenever I read Bruce Dethlefsen’s poetry, I am ready for a tour de force that will both entertain and make me look at the world in a different, more probing way. No detail is left unexamined, no emotion is too trivial for this fantastic poet. Those last two words are a clue, dear readers. Buy the book. Don’t analyze the lines or parse the language. Enjoy the book for what it is, fine poetry.
A Word About Bruce Dethlefsen, Public Poet
In my review I neglected to mention that Bruce Dethlefsen is the Poet Laureate of Wisconsin for 2011/2012. It has been quite a roller coaster ride for him, after having been nominated by the arts community in his state and then having the Wisconsin Legislature defund the position, effectively eliminating it. You may recall last winter’s protests in Wisconsin over the denial of the right of collective bargaining to public workers. Bruce Dethlefsen is, first and foremost, an educator. Despite being named Poet Laureate he joined his fellow educators, city workers and poets out on the picket line.
It was believed by the new legislature that the $2,000 budget of the state Laureate was a triviality to be eliminated so that the republic could once again aspire to wealth. A group of poets under the aegis of Verse Wisconsin began a series of daily protest poems to keep the striker’s spirits up. Fortunately, the screaming Socialist hordes represented by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters granted a stipend to match what was taken away and Wisconsin will have a Poet Laureate until 2012. The Verse Wisconsin movement also gave the state a new publisher, Cowfeather Press. We hear a lot about job creation and supporting small business in the press. This is a example of such. I respectfully ask what the Wisconsin Legislature has done to match or support this?
In my review of Billy Collins in the April 2010 issue of Quill and Parchment I spoke about the role of the Public Poet and how each of us reading this issue of Q & P has a responsibility to support poetry education in the United States. The best I could do for support is to write about what is going on in Wisconsin. Bruce Dethlefsen is different. As we used to say in my neighborhood. He talks the talk but he also walks the walk. Ladies and Gentlemen, there are poets, educators and state workers who are fighting for their rightful share of this nation’s bounty. Please support them. Buy from Cowfeather Press. Go to www.versewisconsin.org or visit their Facebook page. They are on the front line of the middle class plight and their fight will eventually come to your doors as it came to mine last summer. Please support them.
I have never heard Bruce complain about the problem they are facing in Wisconsin. The closest I’ve found is on page 95 of “Unexpected Shiny Things”. It is a simple three line haiku:
the headless snowman
With the shouts and recriminations about the gubernatorial recall currently going on in Wisconsin, I don’t know who will win, the Poet or the legislature. I’m not sure, but to paraphrase Wesley Snipes, “always bet the Poet”.