“Breather” by Bruce Dethlefsen
Review by Ed Bennett
(Fireweed Press, 2009)
In my senior year of high school, in a fit of left brained enthusiasm, I took a Physics course. One of the first experiments was to create waves in a pool by dropping a ball bearing into it, watching the waves propagate and then analyzing the result. By the end of the two hour lab I was pretty bored. My mind drifted and I thought about summer days where I would toss a stone into a lake to watch the ripples reach back to shore playing with the light on the lake’s surface. That was probably when I learned that there are two types of observation: analytic, measurable observation and a more relaxed yet complicated type where one experiences the phenomenon, takes it in, perhaps learning from it, sometimes creating a new vision.
“Breather” by Bruce Dethlefsen falls into the latter type. Each poem in this collection is a stone dropped into the lake of a reader’s experience creating ripples that reach out to touch the shore in every direction. These are not poems to be analyzed – they should be savored.
The book is divided into five sections: Migrants, Knots, Poet Warrior, Secrets and Autopsy. Each section is a study of the human condition seen from a unique viewpoint, as if through a jeweler’s loupe. The poems expose each situation to us in such a way that the familiar experiences that are chronicled are somehow changed in the narration.
“Migrants” is the poet’s exploration of nature ranging from his garden to a pack of nocturnal raccoons foraging in the dark. His vision is crystalline, especially in “August 28” where he opens the poem with:
“I lay a cool slice
of red ripe brandywine tomato
on my tongue.”
The language and rhythm of the lines are as free as Whitman with the short phrase precision of image that one finds in William Carlos Williams. Each of these poems, though familiar in setting, grabs the reader’s attention not so much with a fist at the collar as with an arm around the shoulder. He sets the stage in this section for a journey through the reader’s soul.
“Knots” is a section composed of poems with longer, more introspective lines focused on relationships, especially family. Mr. Dethlefsen walks a tightrope through this section, choosing each step carefully as he walks between exposition and bathos. Like any great performer we watch his movement while we hold our breath. He does not disappoint. Each poem is crafted to fit within the devices of the others and the section concludes with the lines:
“and the story resumes”.
“Poet Warrior is the climax of the book. The poet lays open his emotions, his passions and even his failures. In this nation where bashing immigrants is a public spectacle celebrated on the nightly news, Mr. Dethlefsen provides a counterpoint. There is a respect here for the subject drawn from within himself, an empathy arising from his experience and from being “raised right” as his Midwestern neighbors would say.
The passion of “Poet Warrior” leads to the introspective “Secrets”. We wait for the personal problems in each poem to be placed before us like tarot cards. Mr. Dethlefsen, however, doesn’t deal the cards – he juggles them. Taking us through memories of lost loves, difficult relationships he uses his humor to overwrite the darkness. “In the Living Room” sounds like a police report until the last line where the narrator’s comment draws a laugh then leaves us with the echo of a barren marriage.
Of the five sections, “Autopsy” seems the most personal. It begins, quite literally, with the autopsy of the poet narrator. The poems of this section deal with death, terminal illness and the minutiae of life that surrounds its ending. Mr. Dethlefsen is too good a poet to wallow in this subject matter. Instead, he takes each situation and examines every facet as he seeks the “why” of each of these hard predicaments.
“Breather” is an excellent book. The poet’s craft is evident from the phrasing to the line structure to the exacting precision of the finished poem. Each poem is superbly grouped and each section of the book draws the reader into a complex examination of the routine of living. Bruce Dethlefsen is a master of language. The sonics and rhythm of each poem is carefully crafted and that fact is evident from the first strophe. But he doesn’t paint vistas on a poetic canvass as much as he shapes them like a woodworker with every mortise word perfectly nested in the tenon of the image. The final product, “Breather”, drops into the reader’s experience unassumingly, yet the ripples reach out subtly changing the perception.
Bruce Dethlefsen is a rare poet: he gave me, in his own way, a better appreciation of the Physics of everyday living, and that is no mean feat.