THE SILVER DAZZLE OF THE SUN
Selected poems by Paul Dresman
(Cottage in the Park Press)
Readers frustrated and ill by the tone-deaf grating of bad modern verse would do well to acquire a copy of Paul Dresmans terrific collection The Silver Dazzle of the Sun. Dresman, a poet, writer, translator, and teacher born in Southern California who presently lectures at the University of Oregon, emerges with this collection as a major voice in American poetry. Where the trend among celebrity poets has moved largely toward a softness scarcely distinguishable from herd-instinct nostalgia, or a reshuffling of old experimental tricks more iconic than satisfying, Dresman returns poetry to the realm of discourse, experience, ideas. The distinction between the work in Silver Dazzle of the Sun and the nervous elegance of much accomplished contemporary poetry is that Dresman understands how to talk about the world through the rigor of verse. Pliant, rhythmic, malleable, fluid and yet solid as the material objects philosophers drive themselves insane interrogating, there is nothing shy nor tentative in these pieces.
This is poetry that wants to talk to you. Blessed with an ear for the turns, snaps and lacing configurations that word forms and phrases can bring to bear on a subject, the poet here has mastered William Carlos Williams' compelling if sketchily described notion of the "variable foot" and, achieves what Pound preached when insisting that poetry be written with a mind on the musical phrase, not the metronome. Irony abounds here, as Dresman achieves the strange and wondrous music the idealized speaking voice can give us, while Pound's work sounds its age, creaking flummery at best. Dresmans poetry is rich with a spinning, dynamic music, full of speedy Coltrane-like runs, or modulated with ensemble compactness and precision. This is a writer who approaches his experiences from many routes, paths, ways of entrance. Style is appropriate to subject and tone, and Dresman knows exactly which notes to play, and how often, how loud and how soft. The poems dance and swing and rock and float in a medley of styles united by Dresmans splendidly discriminating ear. Most of all, this is a poetry that lives in the world, poetry as a means to absorb and comprehend events, not something to recede into, feeding on a looping ambiguity. He captures the sense of speed and aggression of California life, where remnants of past years are destroyed in an obsession to build new, useless things, as in "California Frontage" :
The years zip pastlike your address in the glassof a passing Cadillac,and the curbings repeat.The grass looks greenerbecause its older and well keptwomen amble the avenuessurrounded with leaves.Under the eaves of spreading ferns,we sit looking out for sunsets,flags by the driveways,cars returning from work,porches, doors, sunbursts in bas relief.We drift though the windows by the seaand the saber-tooth frondson the overhead palmsrattle like fistfuls of keys.
One of the keen things about this body of work is Dresman's particular interest in bringing local and regional distinctions into the pieces he writes. An astute critic of the late Ed Dorn's masterpiece Gunslinger, Dresman's own poems are details of place, studies of personalities sussing out the manufacture of meaning as terrains are transformed, with an intense, curious intelligence bearing witness in ways that are awed, aghast and swift of stanza, a personality snagging fleet impressions of the disarray created by hubris-laden intentions. History, traditions, specific joys and inanities are restored to poetry's particular mission to make a reader consider themselves deeper in their world, in their own accumulated habits and habitats. It is not, let us emphasize, the tho- paleontology of some writers who side with Pound and are content to have their fabled genius remain unreadable, parsable only by an anointed coterie. Dresman's poems have extreme empathy with the world. This is a world where one speaks in a tongue that invites a response. The speakers are shaped by language that accommodates the vastness of the region, The West, both as a physical place and collective social construction, looms large in a good deal of the present poems (as it is in Dorn's long lines), and it is the marriage of voice and location that gives the poetry in The Silver Dazzle of the Sun a life that is absent from too much-published poetry. The world climbs through the language and appears through deft description fresh as a moment of the first perception; style is content, to beg an old question, but it's a worthwhile distinction to make clear. Dresman's work brings us a world of felt experience that can be addressed in useful ways. There are no epistemological quandaries here, no rueful meditations on malformed vowels.
There is, though, plenty of wit, anger, flights of lyric speculation, writ with a sure composing hand. There is something of a medley of voices at play in these works, where a terrain on which innumerable generations of having written on emerge in a layered and subtly orchestrated music. The poetics of wonder, rage, joy, and sorrow are harnessed with extraordinary skill. Above all else, the poems come from a voice that is speaking to you; there are moments when the candor and reticent wit of the writing makes you ponder again the incidents in your experience that you might not have regarded for years. The poetry is that good. An interesting tension is created in "California Frontage", and even within the emphasis of constant change and evisceration of the landscape, the poet still finds the poetic on the broad street corners and patios. The seeming stasis of neighborhoods wedged between strip-mall glutted intersections coexisting alongside the redundant dynamism of a Los Angeles freeway; for all the noise that is generated, a still life nonetheless. The ordinary detail of neighborhood life is caught in fluid, painterly strokes.
Dresman works in many lengths of line, and the eclectic nature of what his ear picks and his pen composes is remarkable; the conversational twines with the philosophical, zen stillness minds a synthesis with clipped and stinging cadences that suggest hard rock guitar, while nature poems lead to urban realism. These are poems of a world in constant flux, sometimes subtle, graceful, but always dynamic, with an effect on the emotional life of person and place. The snapshot accuracy of the author's description of the churning acres we live on allows us a sense of the large existence we are passing through. There are scores of splendid poems here, some of the surest and best poetry that's been written by an American poet. Dresman'is impressive, and the works are organized into six sections, "a western child", "histories","California frontage", how to make a Chinese landscape painting", "en castellano" and "on Sundays, in America". As you can surmise, the titles reflect the places Dresman has been and what he has written about, moving across the continent, over borders and oceans, and back again, with eyes open, ears tuned, the pen ready to write. The Silver Dazzle of the Sun is the rare thing in an age where even "instantaneous" is too slow a concept; this work draws you back to it. Additional twists and turns are revealed, nuances are brought to mind, and unexpected inspirations resonate like soft, swift rhymes, just as our lives characteristically unveil every unexpected thing.
To conclude, first an admission:Full disclosure: Paul Dresman was a teacher of mine at the University of California, San Diego, and he was the nearest thing I had to a poetry mentor. He has a genius for the unexpected phrase to describe what would go unnoticed in situations and encounters, and he has one of the most perfectly developed ears I've come across; his free verse has a vital, rhythm, a sound of surprise. In, his poem "Speaking of Routes", he provides us with a comic scenario for the tensions between the animal and human kingdoms; what is revealed is that we are getting in the way, quite unaware that we share the planet and soon enough will experience a similar dilemma.
Speaking of Routes
Behind the beaches, the plains
cut back into the red ochre,
yellow ochre canyons
and, in places, the torrey pines
have been slashed to the quick
to lift houses on pads,
rainbirds turning circles,
grasses ad ornamentals
where dry brush rattled pods
and the elfin forest went about
surviving each dry year
(rabbits love to come at dawn
and graze the fresh watered lawns).
Where the freeway cuts and concretes the access
the animals are funneled through the underpass
Nights in your lights (maybe one-eyed, returning from parties)
their eyes flash and they move hugely
--foxes coming into sudden new view
But they pass as fast as a pair of hips
in a party kitchen
moves around behind you, brushing you. lightly
inscribing a small intaglio in your imago,
a moment between car and animal,
between hello and where are we going to go?
But the onramp beckons, the empty lanes
lead to the cities of the plains
where animals are found in dreams
like a passing fancy of endless party people
dancing in circles, wanting…
The animals are wanting. One half
of our face caves away. We stand,
along the chain link, waiting
to cross the impassable highway.
The poet's brand of gritty lyricism combines with an eye and ear for the details that wouldn't seem to make sense together and yet are made to combat each other in the guise of conflicting desires--moral obligation slamming up against the lust to consume --provides what finally sounds blunt ironies that will soon become along, irreversible tragedy. Unfortunately, this piece is not included in this volume--not every poem gets selected for selected poems edition--and the idea here was to further provide proof as to why you should seek the work of poet Paul Dresman. It remains my belief that he is one of America's finest word slingers.