Wednesday, August 16, 2006

a brief note on the poetry of Michael Dennis

If you can imagine, during the 1980s, poet Michael Dennis (who turns fifty years old in a couple of weeks) was easily the most published poet in Ottawa, with poems in over seven hundred magazines; the author of a whole slew of books and chapbooks over the years, including quarter on its edge (Fast Eddie Press, 1979), sometimes passion, sometimes pain (Ordinary Press, 1982), no saviour and no special grace (South Western Ontario Press, 1983), poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa ON: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986), wayne gretzky in the house of the sleeping beauties (Toronto ON: Lowlife, 1987), fade to blue (Vancouver BC: Pulp Press, 1987), what we remember and what we forget (Hull QC: Bobo Press, 1993), missing the kisses of eloquence (Burnstown ON: General Store Publishing, 1994), the ongoing dilemma of small change (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1995) and what we pass over in silence (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1996), as well as the collection This Day Full of Promise: Poems Selected and New (Fredericton NB: cauldron books / Broken Jaw Press, 2001). As I wrote in the forward to the selected poems:
michael dennis' poems are rough & sexual & sometimes brutally sweet & honest, & have an integrity to them, much as he does. The line between dennis & his poetry is very thin, & follows the working class traditions of Charles Bukowski & Al Purdy, of hard living, & sometimes hard drinking. There are poems about Catherine the Great's sexual appetites, & about Fellini (that makes my skin crawl, still). There are poems about working, & hanging artwork, about Thor, god of fuck, & about michael being in love with his wife.

It was in michael dennis' poems that I first found reference to The Royal Oak Pub at Bank & MacLaren Streets, poems that mention drinking pints of toby. When I was twenty years old I took great comfort there, & did the same myself, making the bar my own, for years' worth of writing, knowing that a real writer whose work I admired had done it before me.
Part of a group of Peterborough poets in the early 1980s with Dennis Tourbin, Riley Tench, Richard Harrison and Maggie Helwig (all but Harrison and Helwig eventually ended up in Ottawa), Dennis was a force during the years that he was reading and performing in Ottawa alongside Louis Cabri, Kate Van Dusen, Ronnie Brown, Deborah McMullen, George Young, Luba Szkambara, Paul Couillard, Louis Fagan, John Barton, Nadine McInnis, Susan McMaster, Colin Morton and plenty of others. As Maggie Helwig once wrote of Dennis' poetry in a review in Kingston's Quarry magazine (Volume 35, No. 4, fall 1986):
Consider "first you take her by the hand", from his third book, no saviour and no special grace. It is, basically, the story of a slightly bungled first kiss, which in the end is neither disastrous nor wonderful. The poem concludes:

you still end up thinking
about how wonderful it should be
and how hard it might be
it is so strange how we long for the touch of skin
and how it frightens us

That is possibly banal. Or else it is quietly, profoundly telling us something about who we really are. After several readings, I think it is the latter. The curious phrase "how hard it might be" is easily misread; we are all expecting something like "how hard it is." That is not what the poem is talking about at all.

Dennis never explicitly speaks of the terrible human reflex that rejects the possibility of love, but it is one of the themes that runs through his work. The craving for love is present, the potential joy, as well as the tragedy of love's loss. These are familiar. But its not so common to write a poem entitled "it bothers me that skin can be so inviting," which calls our attention to the pain and even the anger we feel at "the invitations of skin." Perhaps only a strongly compassionate man can admit -- on behalf of us all -- how much he can wish to run away from love.

"There were never any books in the house when I was growing up," Dennis says. "Even if somebody somehow managed to bring a book in, it would disappear. It was like a black hole for print." The first books he read outside of school were novels by Harold Robbins. In eighth grade he went, for the first time, to a school that had a library. "It was like, where's all this stuff been? I was taking out four, five books a day." In twelfth grade, he heard a tape of Earle Birney reading "David." After that, he never wanted to do anything but be a poet.

It was about this time, too, that he met a teacher named Don Quarry. "When he found out I wanted to be a poet, every week he'd load me with these stacks of books -- Layton, Purdy, Atwood, Phyllis Webb, Margaret Avison; the basics, the core work -- and tell me to come back when I'd read them; and then we'd talk about them. I just wasn't aware that all this poetry was out there."

Poetry, then, is not something Dennis has ever been able to take for granted. There is an urgency in his attitude towards it that extends even to how a manuscript draft looks -- "Handwriting should be nice." In "how the poet thinks," from his fourth book, poems for jessica-flynn, he speaks of himself

hammering away
not making sense of the thing
but just pounding
to make sure i'm alive
One of the frustrating aspects of Dennis' particular grouping of poets (he also spent time with a number of visual artists in and around Gallery 101, where Tourbin started hosting readings throughout his tenure in the 1980s) is that it somehow wasn’t strong enough or organized enough to publish it's own anthology of Ottawa poets, considering that Dennis wasn’t included in any of the collections at the time, including Colin Morton's Capital Poets (Ottawa ON: Oroborus, 1988), Heather Ferguson's Open Set: A TREE Anthology (Ottawa ON: Agawa Press, 1990), or Seymour Mayne's Six Ottawa Poets (ON: Mosaic, 1990), and far too roughneck to be part of Christopher Levenson's rather exclusive "Ottawa Poetry Group." Dennis' poetry is part of a plainer speech, almost part of an extended urban folk song, writing earthy and working class poems of going to work, being in love with his wife, and existing in the world on a day to day basis, and are important and even essential to hear read out loud by the author.

poem for Jessica-Flynn

the name Jessica-Flynn
came to me in a dream
it was to be the name
of our first born child
when I was living
with an actress of subtle
and magnificent beauty

when we finally broke up
it was not a question of love
our dreams no longer mattered
in the confusion and anger
that barely concealed our fear

the scariest part of the entire affair
was the knowing
that love hadn’t failed
that we still felt deeply and sincerely
about each other
but that it wasn’t enough
and that there was no way to share
what we had thought
would be an ideal life

there was no hope of ever having a child together
and with that loss no hope of ever having children
it would become a gamble too great to chance
a gamble I would never be brave enough to take

when we separated Jessica-Flynn died
as surely
as if she had been torn
from the womb (poems for jessica-flynn)

Recently, Dennis launched two collections with Toronto publisher LyricalMyrical (Dennis is their only non-Toronto author), a small publisher of poetry collections produced in part with covers from recycled hardcovers, the collection All Those Miles Yet To Go (2005), and Poems For Another Poetry Reading (2006). Both were launched during individual events at the video store / art gallery speace Invisible Cinema (appropriately enough, the location of Gallery 101 during the late 1980s and through the 1990s). Much less active in performing and publishing his work than he was twenty years ago, Dennis' poems are quieter than they used to be (as is Dennis, I'm sure), but still retain that ethereal quality of Southwestern Ontario folk he grew up in, working his roughneck past into his current and even future.

Short Order

the waitress's English
is much better
than my French

between the two of us
I get my deux oeufs
and over easy as well

it all comes
the way I want

of course
they have no
Coca-Cola, only Pepsi

during that part
of the conversation
the entire room
stops talking
and smoking

so as to better hear
what the crazy Englishman
might say next (Poems For Another Poetry Reading)


Anonymous said...

fat sunlight creeps into my garden where trees around me stand
cloaked in mist and a forest of clothes
this chair i sit in might be a throne and this lovely lonely day a palace

.. R. Tench
51-06 RIP

Anonymous said...

Riley Tench, Ottawa Poet has passed away suddenly at his home in Ottawa. His family and friends will be conducting a service in the final days of November and the first days of December.The location will be announced.
He will be sorely missed. RIP Riley
We love you.