A New and Selected from a poet as underground and underassuming as Michael Dennis (for one, nearly all his poems eschew caps, a mark, among many others, of textual humility), is something of a weird treat and one only likely to have been brought out by someone as kin as his editor and long term friend, Stuart Ross. In a brief, intimate Introduction, Ross describes Dennis’s appeal as residing in his “conviction, his directness”; he is a “populist poet” who delivers “poetry without artifice.” Well, for the most part. If there is actually any such thing as poetry without artifice. Surely there is play with form (even free) going on here, along with metaphor, and with voice. It just doesn’t yawp its techniques from the rooftops or aim, ever, for obfuscation or cleverness. I truly started to click with Dennis’s poems in Bad Engine while reading “Meeting the Duke,” a quirky approchement between man and dragonfly through the aegis of a joint in which Dennis eventually muses: “I doubt we were looking/for the same things/but you never know.” Dennis’s aesthetic may stem from the plain-spoken era of Purdy, Trower, Nowlan, but his sense of humour remains a regular thread and there’s more often the shadow of a wink in things, though startling pieces like “in laughter and again in fear” in which the young speaker has his uncle’s friends “cocks” forced on him, as well as being hung “from [his] ankles/ over the edge of a cliff” is so telling-it-like-it-is as to be a necessary textual rupture, casually sandwiched between poems on trained ducks and Wayne Gretzky’s prowess. Both light perceptions and dark realities are carried with equivalent potency in Bad Engine.
There are also poems that pronounce on poetry itself in a matter of fact yet somehow problematizing way, as with a piece about men who beat up women during which the narrator states balefully, that in this context, “poetry certainly doesn’t matter” (snakes with shoes). Or when he notes that although he has “never enjoyed/delicate musings on the beauty of nature” (of all the poems I never planned to write) a butterfly has nonetheless compelled him to do so. Although the loose forms and Dennis’s tendency to begin too many pieces in the second person imperative (“you are on a train”…”you are in a small plane”) become a bit wearisome, there is frequently something, content-wise, that continues to draw the reader, whether it’s the “white painted stencil/of a little dog shitting…beside the sewer grates” in Brussels (puppies and the pissing boy) or the young boy’s confused perceptions of his redneck fatehr baling with “large hands like a winnowing fan” (the winnowing fan) and his detestations of his grandmother’s margarine – “the white lard/with the blueish-purple dot” (gloria in excelsis deo).
Aural pleasures aren’t overwhelming but remain evident in the taut ping of line breaks and the occasional assonantal gem such as “the ghastly sleep/of the beast” (you are driving.) A poem that begins “let’s say you’re a deer” (this day full of promise), one that chronicles the banality of the everyday where the speaker reluctantly “did what [he] was told” and another harshly punctuated piece about how abuse becomes wrapped up in the quotidian so that even the relaxation of watching a hockey game can rapidly be punctured by memories of his “uncle….ripping at [his] anus” (where memories are made), are especially striking in the later array of poems. Dennis is refreshingly unafraid of being blunt in matters of sex (the “cock/cunt stuff”). Or death. Ala Bukowski perhaps who wrote, as Dennis recalls: “in beer and blood.” And if your “poem ends when they both come” well what more can you ask for.
Also, thanks to Michael for his blog: Today’s Book of Poetry. The more passionate reviewers of poems the better!