Book Review

Daniel Tiffany’s highly musical collection The Dandelion Clock presents Middle English phrases alongside song lyrics, street slang, and popular ephemera, suggesting that a complex social history informs much of contemporary literature. Written as an extended sequence, this stunning collection uses found language as a point of entry to questions about cultural legitimacy and its role in determining the fate of a given text. Through startling juxtapositions and dramatic shifts in register, Tiffany challenges the hierarchies that exist among colloquial, arcane, and literary speech, offering readers a graceful matching of form and content all the while.

Tiffany’s poems are at their best when the poetic image serves as an anchor for these dissimilar types of diction and syntax. While much of his work exhibits a collage-like quality, in which commercial ephemera and lofty verse exist side by side, the poet often weaves the same evocative images throughout these mosaics of found language. By juxtaposing literary and colloquial descriptions of the same items, Tiffany suggests that everyday speech can compliment, and even outshine, the rhetorical conventions that most would aggrandize as poetic. Consider this untitled piece:

To see the shap of it yesterday
Pocket crescent
Polly Pocket
Touch it the falling

In this passage, Tiffany begins with a piece of Middle English lyric and progresses through a series of wonderful, and often surprising, associative leaps. While doing so, he continually returns to the image of the speaker’s pocket and the objects that are kept there: the moon, a child’s toy, and the descent into sleep itself. Each change in meaning brings with it a subtle shift in tone. Although the piece gains momentum as it invokes a higher register, it ultimately builds toward the understated and plainly spoken moment in the last two lines. Tiffany’s decisions in structuring the piece suggest that despite the grandeur of artistic convention, the most unaffected language can prove both evocative and moving in the proper context.

That said, Tiffany’s work adeptly blurs the boundaries between literary and colloquial, suggesting that the best art remains grounded in everyday life. The poems in this collection convey this idea beautifully through their juxtaposition of Middle English verse with “cornflakes,” “Polly Pocket,” and other pieces of commercial culture. As the book unfolds, popular ephemera becomes indistinguishable from high art, suggesting the two often prove complimentary. Tiffany writes, for example, in another untitled piece,

Sterre seen before day
The shadwe cacchen they ne myghte
Cornflake pearl
Earrings the word cloud
If it is one
That joker stole off

Tiffany suggests that the alliteration, assonance, and overall musicality of Middle English poetry also manifests itself in everyday speech. Just as the first two lines, taken from lyric verse, build momentum through their repetition of certain vowels, the latter half of the piece creates a similar type of music from the language of popular ephemera. In many ways, Tiffany implies that these sorts of artistic tropes serve as a foundation for popular culture, just as much of literary writing possesses vernacular origins. This piece, like others in the collection, prompts the reader to reconsider the hierarchies that exist among different types of language. For Tiffany, literary and colloquial speech remain complimentary, especially when we allow them to illuminate and complicate one another.

Much of the carefully crafted work in The Dandelion Clock explores this possibility. As the book unfolds, Tiffany shows us that the boundaries between literary culture and everyday life remain porous, but that this is also something one should embrace. The poems in this collection suggest that colloquial speech often accomplishes syntactical feats that would prove nearly impossible within a higher register. In this respect, poetry is enriched by its vernacular origins. Midway through the collection, for instance, Tiffany writes:

Love me listned ech a worde
And bowed him to me overbord

What have you
Spelled “wednesday”
Surprise surprise

In such passages as this, Tiffany presents a fragment of Middle English lyric alongside colloquial speech. As the poet transitions from a higher register to a lower one, the piece becomes increasingly complex, and the second half of the poem illuminates the first. Phrases such as “What have you” and “surprise surprise” read as responses to the lofty verse at the beginning of the piece. In many ways, Tiffany parodies the rhetorical posturing found in these lyric fragments, suggesting that there are few “surprises” present in art that fails to ground itself in everyday experience. This piece, like much of the work in Tiffany’s newest collection, offers a graceful synthesis of innovation and deference to literary tradition.

About the Reviewer

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of Night Songs (Gold Wake Press, 2010) and the editor of narrative (dis)continuities: prose experiments by younger american writers (VOX Press, 2011). A graduate of Washington University, she currently studies philosophy at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.