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Tag: David Dodd Lee’s Animalities

“Black Light / Her Name in a Cup”: Scenes & Impressions: Reading David Dodd Lee’s Animalities

 

animalities-cover-for-web2David Dodd Lee has been there with me since the beginning—not since the beginning of my reading and loving poetry, but of my writing poetry and taking that progress seriously. Of taking poetry seriously, and the idea that there was something to be taken from poetry, to be understood, to be had. Like a physical object you can pull off the page each time, and put in your pocket, and take with you.

That’s how I feel each time when I read a poem, let alone a collection, by David: that I am taking something with me—whether or not it is my choice. Some burden almost, some understanding, some new being even. Something in me has changed after having read David’s work. I tend to feel calmer, a little newer, but unsettled, too. Good poetry tends to do that to me. It will renew me first, and then it will rattle me. That’s what happens with David’s work, every time. Sometimes it takes a minute to go inside, knowing that; and it takes a minute to come back out. It takes a minute to shake it off.

More and more, I find myself drawn not only to David’s images (I’ve always loved David’s images—and his blending of perceptions), but his use of narrative, and how he bends it. I’m particularly interested in the somewhat sinister quality that creeps into that narrative from time to time, but also the female figures that he introduces, who are obviously not all the same woman. This interest is not all the book’s doing, of course; partially, this is just where I am in my own writing life, and where I draw my personal inspirations from… but I believe he’s doing imagery, narration, the sinister, and the female figure exceptionally well in this collection—hence the term Animalities, or, our animalistic (or more primal) qualities. How fitting. But not too fitting—that would be too clean.

At any rate, before I say too much more, here is one of my absolute favorite, if longer, poems from the collection, that I would like to use to explore these areas that I’ve highlighted. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have:

 

FOR THE COUNTRY

                (Happy Days Café, Wakarusa, Indiana)

 

We’re buzzing and adrenal
with contempt,

then laughing—

a cork pops out of the life raft.

The cook wears a pea coat.

Northern-based diet, everything a smothering,
while the flickering reel
of a window

helps give life texture: a bird
poles a small
wagon under a traffic light . . .

at home she has finally gotten up

she can taste the air coming in through the screens

*

It’s in the drink,
just north of Wakarusa,

sassafras in the joints,

the blur of test tubes where a tear might throb . . .

The usual contingencies and then this
tertiary

black light

her name in a cup,

the pine needles.

*

Elaborately complicated
by candlelight,

her fingertips stuck to my arm like sawdust.

Yes, though, I said, to the fresh
gleam of the wood and the yellow rope,

her spasmed anxiety,

the orange she’s allowed to eat each day at 6 pm,

the time it takes
for the claw-footed tub to fill up.

*

“Hot Blooded” surges
on the radio

an unfortunate marriage of circumstance
and nostalgia

a nice haircut

a kiss on the cheek

crows on the phone lines like her little black shirts

*

The waitress’s blood ran down the bright front window

He’d given her a photograph of “an ocean.”

She took it, held it close

A mayonnaise jar full of weeds in some warm creek water

 

Isn’t this poem lovely? Doesn’t it just stop you in your tracks? It floors me, every single time—and it’s that pea coat, that black light, that claw-foot bath tub, and that ending—those last four lines, so unsettling. As I stated earlier, I’ve always loved David’s imagery—and this “ocean” and mayonnaise jar are as vivid as they come—but I’m particularly impressed with his latest use of narration, and how that pairs with his imagery, especially in these poems.

As a poem in five sections, I’ve considered time and time again its sequence—but I’ve realized the where and the when is somewhat inconsequential. I assume it is evening, but I’m more interested now in the repetitions and variations: every sequence includes flesh and water, and nearly every sequence includes food, but not every sequence includes music—but somehow there’s an echo of it just the same. It’s that distortion of perception that I’ve come to love in David’s work, and that’s why I’m addressing sequences. For example, in the first section, the two characters are on a life raft; in the second, they are under a black light; and in the third, they are under candlelight, and “her fingertips [were] stuck to my arm like sawdust” (30). Such a strange, beautiful progression—from location to location, from light to light, from sawdust to a bathtub to a windshield and a mayonnaise jar. These movements are what I look for, out of instinct, in David’s works now, because I love them, and because I believe this is what makes them tick.

In addition to his sequential work, there is also the sinister nature of many of his poems, including the ending of this one, and the transformation of his female figures. I’ve really never felt that David’s poems are overly sinister (and there are certainly some poets where this is arguably the case); there is simply an element, an edge, to his poems—supplying a woman with an image of nothing short of a murder scene when she requested an ocean? Sinister. But after all of the surreality, and the beautiful imagery work earlier in the poem, the poet is able to get away with this, and the moment is even unstated, because it achieves such a balance. It achieves an edge, rather than dominance. Pair that with this female character in particular and, well, it’s just a gorgeous poem. I can’t arguably say what draws me so much to this particular character, except for how she is presented through distortion—which, once again, just reinforces my point for this poet’s handling of perception and the rewriting of perception. All of that being said, I know there are other poems, which I will not take time to list here, where the female figure is much more present and solidified, but perhaps what I love so much about this is figure is how her personality and perspective is impressed upon by what happens around her.

Really, what else is there to say—I greatly admire David Dodd Lee’s work, I have enjoyed this collection repeatedly, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you have read his work before and enjoyed his imagery, you will not be disappointed, and you will appreciate the newfound relationship with the narrative. If you are new to David’s work, you are in for a treat. Imagery, narrative—and throw in wonderful sinister (and sometimes sweet) edges, and female figures like in this poem—you can’t go wrong.

 

DAVID DODD LEE is the author of eight previous books of poems, including The Coldest Winter on Earth (Marick Press, 2012). His fourth book, Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlazeVox, 2010), taught him how to write the poems in his next books: The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) and Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010). He is the editor of two poetry / fiction anthologies: Shade 2004 & 2006 (Four Way Books) and The Other Life: The Selected Poems of Herbert Scott (Carnegie Mellon, 2010). His poems have appeared in Court Green, Denver Quarterly, Field, Jacket, The Nation, Nerve, and in many other places. He is also a visual artist, writes and publishes fiction, publishes chapbooks and full-length titles as editor-in-chief of 42 Miles Press, and teaches classes in poetry, publishing, art history, and the art of collage at Indiana University South Bend, where he is assistant professor of English. He lives in Osceola, east of South Bend, where he kayaks and fishes on Baugo Bay.

 

David Dodd Lee’s latest book, And Others, Vaguer Presences: A Book of Ashbery Erasure Poems, is now available for pre-order from BlazeVox Books and Amazon.

 

 

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Counting Down to the New Year: Five of My Favorite Books of 2014

 

happy-new-year Happy New Year, all! I hope you had a wonderful celebration of the upcoming new year and were able to spend some time recounting the good memories of 2014. Along with going to school and becoming a mom, this was definitely a year for reading and reviewing books. I learned a great deal this year—about the art of reviewing and commenting on a text, about my personal tastes and what styles and moves in a text tend to stick with me the longest. Today, I went back through the list of books I read throughout the year and considered which books were the most influential. It was a difficult process. The five books I’ve included below were, both, among my favorites (which were far more than five titles!) and the most striking or memorable: the ending of The Art of Floating, the rhythm I swear I can still feel in my stomach after reading The Bottom, the blue room in The Language of Flowers, the opening poem in Trances of the Blast, and the hilarity of the narrator and the purity of the baby in What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day… These were such beautiful books, and whether read at the beginning of the year or more recently, they have stayed with me more than my other titles in 2014.

Because it was so difficult to even narrow down to five titles, I’ve decided not to rank them in an particular order; I’ve simply put them in alphabetical order, by title.

 

Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating THE ART OF FLOATING by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, Penguin/Berkley, 2014
What can I say? This was easily one of the loveliest books I have read in a very, very long time. Termed by some as a fabulous beach read, I walked into the experience expecting a love story and only a love story, but it proved itself to be so much more than that. Teeming with surrealist images and ideas, this book combats what it means to feel something—how we often have to turn to metaphor in order to get our thoughts and feelings across. It’s a project that lives in that literary stance of, “I know the image doesn’t make sense, per se, but it’s right.” Real, honest, raw.

 

Betsy Andrews_The Bottom THE BOTTOM by Betsy Andrews, 42 Miles Press, 2014
Such a beautiful book! As of a few years ago, I became extremely interested in the placement of ecological concern in writing—particularly ecopoetics. What’s interesting to me is how Andrews pushes the bill and makes The Bottom much, much more than an ecopoetic piece; it’s ecopoetic, yes, but it is also political (different, in my mind, from ecopoetic), rooted (in a sense) in pop culture, and pulling from very deep ties in folklore and oral tradition. It also challenges common conceptions of the ocean, who lives in it, and who is impacted by their loss (spoiler: all of us). Deeply rendered, an oceanic rhythm, and shockingly resourceful and smart.

 

Vanessa Diffenbaugh_The Language of Flowers THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2012
There is something especially interesting about the concept of etymology (besides the fact that I love language)—how such a study is like a constant search for origin stories, for new meanings, and (my favorite part) varying and debatable interpretations. This concept is not overly-present in my work, as of yet, though it certainly something I am working on introducing, and something I greatly appreciate in others’ work. The Language of Flowers truly thrives inside etymology, both, as origin stories for the names of and purposes of species of flower but also how wrong an interpretation can be… and what that can mean for the portrayal and giving of a bouquet. Haunting and lovely.

 

Mary Ruefle_Trances of the Blast TRANCES OF THE BLAST by Mary Ruefle, Wave Books, 2013
I’ve always had a particular soft spot for Mary Ruefle’s poetry, though Cold Pluto has always been my favorite of her collections; there is a certain seamlessness and confidence to the collection of poems, their order and imagery, that I did not find as competitive in her other works (though I loved them, as well; Cold Pluto simply became my favorite). Now, however, Trances of the Blast came into my view, and it is absolutely wonderful. I sat one day with just Cold Pluto and Trances by my side, and it made for a truly wonderful day. An imagistic, confident and wonderful day.

 

Pear Cleage_What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day WHAT LOOKS LIKE CRAZY ON AN ORDINARY DAY by Pearl Cleage, Harper Paperbacks, 1997
Not a new book but one that was gifted to me for Christmas 2013; my friend “warned” me that it was a strange read but easily one of her favorite books, ever. This intrigued me, and from the first page onward, I understood what she meant. What Looks Like Crazy is bold and funny, operating in that strange place where grief and laughter strangely, funnily, and tragically coexist (which reminds me constantly of Cleage’s stance in playwriting, and how that stance influences the poise of her fiction, in the best way possible). It’s beautiful and memorable, dark and hilarious, easily a book I will return to—and gift and gift and gift.

 

I’m pausing for a moment and just thinking of how wonderful of a year it’s been. The past several years have each been difficult or heartbreaking in their own ways, and 2014 was the first year in a while where I reached some sort of reprieve—where my husband and I both reached some sort of reprieve—from hardship. And I think that’s been demonstrated, too, in the books I’ve read; when I first came to terms with my five “favorite” picks of 2014, I nodded to myself and said, “Yes, these titles represent me—in what I need as a writer and, perhaps more importantly, what I need as a reader and individual.” These five titles aren’t just memorable and books that I will read again in the future (and look forward to reading again in the future). They were beautiful, and they were hopeful, and challenging, and they were crutches for me during a year of healing. They were confirmation that, yes, this could be a better year than the past few, and they were a constant reminder that there is beauty to be found amidst all of the chaos. They were books I could set aside for later, to return to when things get rough again, because they always do… and to remind me that things will also get better again.

Because they always do.

And, finally, a belated wish to all of you, from a writer I’ve been reading for a very long time, as we turn to 2015…

 

Happy New Year Book Wish

 

 

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Reading David Dodd Lee

 

THE WHITE SEA

 

Spin the big wheel of weather. So it’s seven
degrees. I could have sworn it was balmy and getting ready

        to storm
eight minutes ago. One definition of a slob is someone

who runs out to the street through a foot of snow in slippers
and a t-shirt to get the mail. And falls down. I close my eyes to

        the weather
and see black lemons floating on white water.

 

ESTRANGEMENT

 

The deer’s face points downriver, marble-still, cold
eye into the wind, staring into the flashlight. Engine’s shut off,

        snow on
the high banks. I slice her open on-site, organs spilling

into the water. Do the falling parts know that she’s gone yet?
And the animal with its great black floor takes passage. She doesn’t

        need to
worry anymore. The creek’s stars quiver and absorb her. I light

my last cigarette. Barter trumps money in these woods.
Now her neck muscles are flowing out into the falling snow,

        hooves streaming
up into the gray machine… The eyes are deep set, polished already.

I’m still in awe. Later, I remove the head. She smells of wet rocks
and trees. I light a joint, rub the burn scars on my arm, remove

        the wire
frame for the gray fox, place the doe’s head on the fleshing table.

I boil water. The body drains in the carport. I don’t fear being away
from them anymore. It’s quiet and the phone never rings.

 

THE LESSON

 

The joy cannot continue,
cannot extinguish the fire in

        the bathtub,
the sirens roving from room to room

in the small house just down the hill
from the seven large houses, candles in

        every open
doorway. This is how you see in the dark, he says,

and he takes her hand in his hand, her hand
holding a yellow pencil, and he crosses words out.

 

FROM HAND TO MOUTH

 

I can’t see you.
Semblance. I mean
The rain. The black

Rain. It’s night you
Know, fingernails. Dragged.
And bitten off.

 

SAD FLOWERS

 

They’re back-shot, black blood; we get the noon re-
port. It’s divided into pieces—they aren’t out there. They

        curve over
the wires. Hello, death in Africa, to me in my underwear.

Here’s a blueprint of my pocket. When my face was wrapped
in muslin I could feel the dying animals, the places where they

        left salt
in my brain. Child, camel, things burned: what memories of

these will I bring with me out of the grave? Everyone has to
deal with lint. I pick the stuff off my aloe plant, it flows up

        out of
the baby’s mouth and she’s laughing like a dead jazz singer.

 

*

 

all from David Dodd Lee’s Animalities (Four Way Books, 2014)

 

 

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