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Monday, 17 January 2011

Guest Review: Asbury On Rader

Nick Asbury reviews

I won’t be the only British reader to do a double-take on seeing the ‘2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize’ text on the front cover of this book. It turns out it’s a different prize run by the Truman State University Press in Eliot’s native Missouri. It’s an immediate jolt to remind you that you’re leaving the small world of British poetry behind and entering the vast expanses of America.

Dean Rader’s book is full of vast expanses. The title is taken directly from Hesiod (a bold reference for a debut collection). The original was a key work of classical literature: a farmers’ almanac instructing the writer’s brother on how to work the land in the midst of a farming crisis. Rader comes from a different place and time: born and raised in Oklahoma, he is now professor of English at the University of San Francisco. But there’s a convincing sense of a connection across the centuries: both writers share a concern with land, labour and language. The cover image captures this perfectly, depicting a school desk in the middle of an open plain. (It works so well that it makes me long for a return to cover images—the Pentagram-designed Faber collections that dominate the UK market are beautiful but spare. Maybe we’re due a return of the visual.)

The first poem is ‘Travelling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral, I Write a Poem about Wallace Stevens’, The title already gives you a strong sense of the voice of the poet. Roughly halfway through, you find these two stanzas:

The elderly woman next to me
In 7D has been peeking at this poem
For several minutes.

I don’t mind.
Because the next line is this:
She will die before I do.

Pretty arresting stuff. The apparently easy narrative style is tightly constructed. There’s that echoing ‘ee’ sound in the first stanza: ‘the’, ‘me’, ‘7D’, ‘peeking’. Then the second stanza swings around the ‘i’ of ‘mind’, ‘line’, ‘die’ and ‘I’. This is a poet who instinctively writes with a fine ear, so that even the most conversational lines have an inevitability about them.

The opening poem’s bid for Best Title Award is swiftly challenged by the second poem: ‘Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness’. It’s the first in a series of poems based on the popular American children’s characters, transposed into a high philosophical setting. This is a nice meeting of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, which in previous generations of poets might have felt deliberately challenging or attention-seeking. Dean Rader comes from a generation (he’s about 40, I think), to whom such boundary-crossing comes much more naturally. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like the boundary is there any more. This collection draws on a cast of characters including Hesiod, Wallace Stevens, Frog and Toad, Yeats, Michael Jackson, Einstein and Oprah. But there’s no sense of playing to the crowd or dazzling with references. One of the opening quotes in the book is from Wallace Stevens: “Art must fit with other things; it must be part of the system of the world.” This is part of Rader’s writing mindset, and it’s a good thing. Too much poetry has no real purchase on the world, but this is a poet trying to engage.

Which is not to say any of this is a particularly accessible read. Rader has a tendency to compress complex metaphysical thoughts into a very few words, occasionally to the point of inscrutability. For example, here’s ‘Motherwell’:

If the body were not a canvas:

The brush would not be mistaken
For a penis or rain or loss.

And the light that rises
From the mouths of the dead

Would not seem like
Colors falling from the body

Of the canvas of loss.
But if the canvas is rain,

Then the brush of the body
Is the dead’s elegy

To the other side of color.

An endnote explains that the ‘Motherwell’ of the title is the mid-century abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell. Even so, much of the poem remains inscrutable, to me at least. I know there’s interesting stuff going on about the relationship of body and canvas, art and life, world and words, but the succession of negatives in the opening lines is tricky to untangle, and the ‘elegy / to the other side of colour’ is a thought that feels like it could be unpacked into a whole new poem.

That said, I’m also convinced the effect is deliberate and controlled. One of the reasons the voice feels so confident in this collection is that you feel the poet is in command of the effects he achieves, which is not something you can say about everyone. The first challenge for any poet is to find a poetic register in which they can express themselves fully and naturally, and Dean Rader has found his.

The book comes in three sections: ‘Works’, ‘Days’ and a playful ampersand in between. Scattered throughout is a series of apparently autobiographical ‘self portraits’. ‘Self Portrait as Antinomy: 32’ is one of the stand-outs. Dedicated to the poet’s sister, it culminates in a series of questions, ending:

There are more, but the one
I always come back to: will
this still world hum if you are

no longer its breath?

While the poet enjoys intellectual and intertextual games, there is plenty of warmth and humanity here too.

When I finish reading a poetry review, I’m often left wondering if the reviewer thought the collection was any good or worth buying. This one is. On a purely aesthetic note, it’s beautifully produced. More importantly, if you’re looking to discover some emerging voices in America, this is a fine place to start.


Nick Asbury has been a professional writer since 1996, independent since 2002. Before that, he was Managing Director at London creative consultancy Other. He works with design and branding companies and directly for corporate clients and charities.  He is also a poet, whose work includes Corpoetics.
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