Book Review

Paul Klee once described drawing as “taking a line out for a walk.” Carl Dennis goes on walks in search of lines. In fact, in Earthborn, Dennis’ fourteenth book of poetry, there are about twenty references to walks and hikes and strolls—but ambulation in this book is much more than simply a “need for morning exercise.” In the poem “Embodied,” the speaker declares: “I seldom feel / I’m taking my body for a walk. / I feel my mind and my body are walking together / . . . and I’m free to lose myself in wondering.” The wondering journeys in these poems—physical, intellectual, and spiritual—reveal Dennis’ capacious imagination and his wide-ranging thinking, gifts that are well-served by his style: seemingly effortless, brilliantly lineated, narrative, free-verse poems—about a dozen in each of the six sections here.

With every Carl Dennis poem, the reader comes away with a greater sense of the possibilities that lurk within each moment—points of historical convergence, the sense of what might have been and the sense of what might still be. In “First Mate,” Dennis writes of Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, but says, “I don’t want to limit myself to history, / Don’t want to deny myself the liberty / Of contemplating what didn’t happen / But might have,” if, say, Columbus’ first mate had convinced his captain to trade with, rather than enslave, the native peoples they encountered. “Long odds,” Dennis concedes, “but not impossible odds.” And here the poet does “the work of imagining” even as he recognizes:

No monuments, then, in this alternative history,
Would have praised the mate for his deep humanity.
All would have praised the captain, who alone,
Or almost alone, would have known the truth:
That if his mate had been a yes-man,
Not a hero, the logbooks and charts
Would be smeared with blood.

In a short poem here, Dennis calls attention to the inequality of privilege (including, of course, his own and the reader’s); the savagery of colonialism; and makes the subtler observation of our penchant for honoring violence over restraint, and war heroes (that clever break: “who alone, / or almost alone”) over wise counselors who toil nobly in historical obscurity. Dennis’ sympathies are always with “ordinary” folk; his would be A People’s Alternative History.

So much of world history is capricious and out of our control, but so much, he suggests, is also firmly within our control. In “Unanswered Letter,” Dennis recalls a rejection from an editor from long ago. Editors, like first mates, are rarely honored in granite, but the poet now sees how even the act of writing this poem can simultaneously serve as an opportunity to “thank him in absentia for fighting awhile / At an outpost of beauty in danger any moment / Of being surrounded and overrun.” This poem, in other words, rights—as it writes of—an earlier omission.

At the heart of Dennis’ moral vision is his insistence at seeing people as three-dimensional—people with backstories, their own personal histories. When, for example, he witnesses a father “slap his son / For spilling orange juice,” he wonders if intervening would make the father even harder to live with, or if perhaps the father was earnestly working on controlling his temper, or if he had been victimized his own father. Ultimately the speaker does not act, but is this mere equivocation or is this empathetic exercising of the imagination itself a moral act? And, following Dennis’ example, I kept thinking about the “as yet unwritten” life of the victim here: what of the son, I wondered . . . what of his fears, hopes, dreams?

The clearest moral stance Dennis takes is toward environmental justice. In “Dependence Day” the speaker thinks of 4th of July festivities and then suggests a new holiday for the entire planet to celebrate:

What about adding a holiday in early spring
With a focus more global that honors dependence in all its varieties beginning with the dependence
Of the animal Kingdom on the Kingdom of plants
And the dependence of both on the minerals
They’re composed of . . . . Here we are
On a planet composed of stellar debris,
Alive together in a spacious cosmos
That’s the theme of our holiday as we pause
To acknowledge our debt to our providers.

The largeness of Dennis’ vision is striking here; he wants to acknowledge the inter-connectedness of all things. Note the first-person plural “our” which accompanies each of these environmental poems. In “Another Earth Day” the speaker assures the reader, “You needn’t worry that if you join us / You’ll be joining an assembly of the smugly righteous.” Dennis is no mere virtue signaler; rather, for him, protecting the planet is a given, a moral imperative for all of “us.” Yet, there, too, he is interested in the human environment, the lives and motives of others at the clean-up site. He imagines there are those who volunteer in order to protect property values; a teenage girl healing the environment as a response to her own earlier act of self-harm; a soldier to “appease his conscience” for a cruel gesture. A poem near the end of the book titled “One Thing is Needful” starts this way: “Whether I need more humility, / now that my planet is in serious jeopardy / Or more presumption, is an open question.” Later on, as he unpacks this question, the “we” reappears: “Humility reminds me / Our species is here and gone in the blink of an eye. / Presumption insists I’m the only hope, / Along with my cohort, of the world we’re busy / Wrecking.” The call toward stewardship of the planet requires a global effort and one undertaken by individuals. That final line break emphasizes the narrow-minded “busy-ness” of most people’s lives which distracts us from what’s important, even planetary peril.

There is also a keen awareness of mortality in this book. This is perhaps unsurprising for an 83-year-old poet surveying our world across his extraordinary career. In “Thought Experiment,” the speaker confesses he’dbe inclined . . . to seek comfort by turning to friends of mine no longer among the living.” And a couple poems refer to the poet’s’ older brother, Robert, whom he seems to have idolized. In “War and Peace” the narrator says:

When I need to list
The wonders I’ve seen I begin by returning
To the year I was ten, 1949
The year NATO began its efforts
To defend the free world from the world of darkness
When my brother crossed the border each night
As if darkness were not an obstacle,
As if the iron curtain were a curtain of gauze
No harder to lift than to turn a page.

Dennis also offers a stunning elegiac tribute to a close poet friend, Tony Hoagland, to whom the entire volume is dedicated. In “For Tony Hoagland” he writes, “All that’s obvious now is how much light / You’ve taken with you into the dark, / My lively spirited truth-telling friend.”

The end words in this brief excerpt focus “light,” “dark,” and “friendship” signal both what the poet most values in Tony Hoagland and what Dennis most values about poetry: the light of clarity and the warmth of humanity in the face of ever-present darkness.

Earthborn is a worthy addition to the impressive catalog of Carl Dennis’s poetry. This is a book that engages and enlarges its readers by making us more alert to possibility and by reminding us that praising—and poetry—is “a useful calling / Even if no one is listening at the moment.” Considering the continuing generosity of Dennis’ creative output, which abundantly rewards careful reading, recalls one of his speakers who decides, “It’s time to be like the tree . . . showering its seeds / On the soil around it without once asking / Whether or not the soil deserves them / Seeds that will work with what they find.”

About the Reviewer

John S. O’Connor is a public school teacher and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He is the author of two books on writing, Wordplaygrounds and This Time It’s Personal, as well as a chapbook of poetry, Rooting. His poems have appeared in Bennington Review, Poetry East, RHINO, and The Cortland Review. His essays have appeared in journals such as Under the Sun, Sport Literate, and Schools, and have been named Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting. O'Connor is also the creator and host of Schooled: the Podcast.