And that's just in the first three poems. The central portion of this fourth collection from the Massachusetts poet and editor (and director of the Poetry Center at Smith College) packs female and male against each other, in "Baker & Tess." And the third, which has the most variations in form, is "Dreaming We" -- where I especially like the opening of "Ghazal for Shahid":
So, if there's a God, does He comfort or jeer first?With her final poem, "God or No God," Watson summons the value of life itself, while wrestling with sump-pump and cumin seeds and kisses. This is a collection crammed with the flavors of life.
Write the poem backward, you said: put the fear first.
Cassandra's not the onlyBefore I had quite caught up with the multiple layers of image and meaning, I found poems in which Dunham presented material from the Salem Witch Trials -- and discovered some of the parallels, some of the voices that seemed to call and respond.
prophetess. I will not be confined,
content to peacock and preen
my manifold eyes.
Like Watson's collection, this one features a center section that stuns: It's a crown of sonnets thorned with collaged text from Wollstonecraft's letters, pounding the losses of thwarted life and the sense of woman as midwife to the world. And then the final section, "Séance," tilts all the pieces off the table into a cage as wide as the night sky, a song of both lament and power. It's going to take several readings (and the endnotes are essential) -- but I expect to get more from Dunham's poems each time I encounter them again.
She walks barefoot on her journeyThere are more investigations of art, infused with questions about human and God, as well as war. The forms are light and sometimes very short; the topics are deep, as befits a man who walks a Vermont farmscape and ponders which trees to cut.
like the great runner
who, when her parents were her age,
of the victory at Marathon
home to his people,
unaware she would come
and in her own way die.
Most of this slim volume is devoted to "The Puzzle Master" -- a "verse text for a jazz opera," which indeed is being set to music for future performances. Riffing off the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, complete with a Chorus, the verse-play also evokes "The Tempest" in its setting on an imaginary island in the Caribbean. But it teases with its direct application to ordinary life at the same time, as Ingram (Icarus in the myth) asks his inventor father Delling (Daedalus):
A turbocharger on a lawn mower, Pa?Seeing this on stage, with layers of jazz, is sure to be a treat. While you wait for the performance, you can pick up a copy of this enchanted and brightly lit book from New York Quarterly: http://www.nyqbooks.org.
How will you do that? Besides,
supposing you succeed, what then?
Won't it take off on its own?
Could I fly away with it instead
of having to mow our endless lawn?