Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: American Dervish by Steven Reese

 The poetry collection American Dervish by Steven Reese deserves recognition for its insights and command of language. From the opening line, it grabs the reader by both hands and takes her for a beautiful spin, where landscape and the music of culture whirl by. With his intellect and pacing, Reese controls the dance, and the reader relaxes into it, feeling a range of emotions. Although in these times it’s a cliché, I laughed out loud in some places, and the gut-punch sadness of other places made the laughter sweeter. 

One of my favorite poems was featured on Verse Daily. It begins:  

While we're asleep, the brain tends
To the animals.
It drops the electric fence
And they hurry out, they've waited all day.
They wander through town
Down the middle of streets, it's alright,
They know the benevolent mayor here
And his brother the butcher
Who sits outside the locked door
Of his shop and smokes
A joint, watching and laughing.
From the delightful title that sends me to the dictionary, I am hooked.  The poem continues to poke fun at our animal psyches, and our attempts at creating an intellectual society that is better than we are. More than mocking, it's a kind of sophisticated deprecation of our collectives selves that I appreciate, in a you-can-tease-me-if-it's-funny kind of way.

Several times I arrived at the end of a poem and realized I was holding my breath. Then I realized the whole one or two page poem had only one full stop. I found myself going back to see how the construction worked. I love it when a poem makes me think, how did he do that?
Reese offers the theory that America began with a quick-step, a clumsy thump-thump, then we dervished our way across the land, dizzy and ahead of ourselves, and here we are today, in love with the dance even if we don’t always understand it. 

 Our history personified might begin
as that B western scene where the liquored up villain
pulls six-shooters, says dance,
and starts blasting the ground out from under out feet--

we're pressed into it,
                         this hide-saving highstep
                  improvised in extremis, this whirling
that goes on even after the shooting stops
It is a complicated view, both critical and affectionate, of our complicated history. But the book’s zoom level moves in tight, as well. The breadth of this work is impressive, from Pilgrim Thomas Morton to John Chapman to Fallingwater to the tender domesticity of struggling to raise a son with Asberger’s, living through a father’s death, and loving a wife. 

Practice Elegy for my Father

This kite-flying wind, these slow-drift grays
Feathered with white, a rain that will be hours
Filling the shallow bird bath

Are all that's left of a storm that once launched
An exodus for shelter, then seized on the roofs
Of the emptied houses and peeled them back
Like the pull-tab lids of our cat food.

Steve Reese is among Ohio’s finest poets. His work is imaginative, poignant, witty and evocative, his mastery of storytelling, word play, imagery, movement, the line and the break, is so fine.

Cover image by Ohio artist Mary Farragher.