Monday, August 21, 2006



A Reading Spicer and 18 Sonnets by Beverly Dahlen
(Chax Press, 2004)

[An earlier version of the review was first published in TRAFFIC: A Publication of Small Press Traffic, #1. Editor Elizabeth Treadwell, 2005-2006]

How can you write a critical review of Mother Earth? My bias is clear: Beverly Dahlen is my unacquainted mentor, my unknowing tour guide, my (unbeknownst to her) exacting fairy godmother. When I read her poetry, she often addresses my most pressing personal and literary questions and makes me laugh, but not without a price. Her books challenge and blow open held ideas about poetry and what it can do. Spending time with A-Reading Spicer & eighteen sonnets (chax press, 2004) proved no exception. In her working notes from years ago, Dahlen wrote, “Whatever else A Reading (1-7) might be, it is not a fiction.” This urgency about events, their (mythical) foundations, and repercussions is akin to how “A -Reading Spicer” opens:

A warning is soothing
               a part of the landscape of sound
                              in the inner ear
               this book nests in yr pocket hand
vests interest in the larger structure
               the complex merger
               global markets]

the recent flood receding all over town

Here and throughout the piece, the move from language to the work of poetry to community is seamless and dire, Dahlen’s call to arms. And there are many in this text. She skirts questions of the efficacy of poetry in political activism by living them out, showing the necessity of language in relation to social change:

something in the window reminds me
why I teach literacy                Marginalia
not among the life skills now

We and our language are what’s out in the streets just beyond the glass; words are action, the dialectic of people’s beings. And although the poem was written in 1986, its timelessness is keen and scary. Jack Spicer thought poets were time machines—ones who manipulate words so they can be used across time. This is true of Dahlen’s work:

the theme song of the news
                                             hissing and
buzzing              stopped
                              stopped in the ear

in yrs usefully
unexamined assumptions
the ground with yr head above it ] a thin artificial daylight
                                             the bottom line

Dahlen is on our side, but has a morbid hunch. “the blatant wellwisher’s hole in the face” could be ours. In A-Reading Spicer, she tests the formation of our fundamental myths, the structures that we exist in and replicate. Dahlen reminds us these are not just ideas we are dealing in, but lives. All through the book, she enlists broken words, afterimages, cartoon speech bubbles, crossed out & obliterated phrases that mark loss, destruction, and human error on the page and in the world. And the final borrowed lines of the poem which are presented in phonetic code are
themselves a code American slaves used to ridicule slave owners. They question religiosity, the unexamined, and the “current” day.

These concerns ricochet (humorously?! hauntingly?!) in “eighteen sonnets.” The series of these begin “…where do we get this st/uff is Shakespeare really so finders keepers?” And end with “…there is no/deeply hidden and intricate motive for un happiness hap/pines must be our lot in life if some can achieve it/then all must do so research on the brain indicates we/are close very close to this universal human goal we/will be happy anyway.” These short pieces, remarkably musical and hip, include face lifts, faded broken flamingos, chilling dreamscapes, our suburbs far and wide, and we never know for sure if the neighbor next door is dying in the
shower, who the death wagon is coming to get. But throughout all of Dahlen’s work, we are implicated, just by being who we are.


Dana Teen Lomax is the author of Curren¢y (Palm Press, 2006) and Room (a+bend, 1999). At the moment, she is working on Q, a series of “home movies” about raising a child on the grounds of a prison, and recently co-edited Letters To Poets: Conversations about Poetics, Politics, and Community. Her work has appeared in Bay Poetics, 26, Ligature, mem, sonaweb, Moria, Shampoo, dusie, 14 Hills, and other publications, and has received the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for Poetry and California Arts Council and Peninsula Community Foundation grants. She currently teaches at San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco, and lives with her partner and 5-year old daughter in northern California.


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