Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Michael Dennis: All Those Miles Yet To Go (LyricalMyrical, 2005)

First a warning, this collection of poems was published in a limited edition of 50 copies and is no doubt sold out by now. When I was at the launch last summer at the Invisible Cinema, the books were selling like Beaver Tails on the Canal during Winterlude. So why bother to write about it? Because it’s the most recent of a local poet’s work and also because the poet deserves recognition for this refreshing no bullshit collection of poems. If we are very lucky, cross our fingers and hold our breath till we turn blue, perhaps a second print run will occur. The book is beautifully hand made using recycled covers.

In All Those Miles Yet To Go, Michael Dennis mingles hard, straight-forward observation of nitty gritty life with metaphor. The speaker of these poems is the observer, the outsider looking through window, the worker who has taken on many bottom-of-the-barrel jobs, the documenter of nightmarish memories from childhood, the dope smoker, the wine drinker, and above all the “almost lonely” man who struggles and gets by.

The imagery of Dennis’ poems is concrete, at times lyrical, always surprising and memorable. “you can hear the soft hum of sugar/beating through the pure energy of flight” (if this is beauty). In stars on the ceiling, poems are sirens “coming and going/in the distance/but none close enough/to see. In driving a road is a “black snake.” In Miles to go before I sleep, the night is described as “shadowy…rustling around inside the car.” You have to smile at the corny and playful double entendre here: Miles Davis and miles of distance.

Some poems muse philosophical on the state of the world. Dennis portrays the world with both reverence and irreverence at the same time. In this is how I see the world 2, a man is attacked by a vicious pit bull and the three teenage girls who try to control their pet have nothing more to say than “bad dog.” In if there is beauty, the birds in their purity “suggest lessons/that we stumble upon/ in spite of ourselves”. In another history lesson, Dennis describes the delicacy and respect devoted to wrapping up the dress of a woman who’d been a prisoner of war. The tasks described are straightforward and caring. All we can do is remember, respect and move on.

The vocabulary of these poems is unpretentious with adjectives like long, short, dark, shiny, yet Dennis manages to create believable and memorable portraits of his world. There are no references to obscure mythology in these poems. This isn’t a myth; this is real life. It is a world populated by idiots, wife abusers, overdosing drug addicts, dogs smarter than their owners and strangers who “pollute the news and the newspapers” (my own bed).

There is a surprising yet understated precision to Dennis’ language that it is important to note. In the days are running and then some, the speaker “shoveled the frozen dust of a foreman’s whim/out of a Northern Ontario winter and a Falconbridge mine.” The imagery is startling and unforgettable.

Like poets such as Charles Bukowski, Michael Dennis describes poverty, getting by, drinking, the seedy side of things; yet somehow there is hope and there is always irony: Neighbourhood Services delivers furniture quickly (those first few weeks).

And then there is the pain of childhood memory: having experience with belligerent drunks (Mr Silvers), the description of rape by an uncle (where memories are made). This poem is particularly potent. Dennis piles up a description of ordinary memories and then flashes to an incident of sexual abuse, accurately depicting the blankness that the abused returns to when something jars the memory: “a white light harsh jolt” as involuntary and unexpected as a sneeze, but it “hangs around like a virus.” Here Dennis is reminiscent of T. Anders Carson who also writes about abuse. It’s an ugly subject and needs to be tackled in the open.

There’s humility in the poems of this collection at times: “I want more than my share/and I apologize for that.” But at the same time there’s that underlying recognition of mortality: “I’ll want less soon/I’m sure of it” (my want list). Many of Dennis’ poems are concerned with mortality and the desire to live: “I want to sleep through the night/and wake up in the morning.” Yet at the same time, there is a reassurance that despite all the pain and struggle, one can survive: “I’ve…always sort of trusted fate/ to feed me” (check up).

Dennis is refreshingly honest in his willingness to portray the struggle to get by, writing poems about failure and being a “world class fuck up,” of sitting on the toilet wrong and having piss leak onto one’s pants. “my failures aren’t usually/quite so obvious/but/perhaps I’m finally/mastering and discovering/my true calling” (it’s on a Wednesday morning that he realizes his life work…). In motor line, Dennis describes a job on the assembly line: “in ten minutes/I was on the line/one engine every seventeen seconds/all the centuries lined up/before and after me/as I used up every/part/of my first chance/and then my second.”

Despite the struggle portrayed, there’s optimism in Michael Dennis’ poems: “this evening/like most others//better than he had hoped for” (dinner with red wine).

The good news is that much of Michael Dennis’ poetry can be found here:

You can stop holding your breath now.

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