Michael Dennis Goes to Neptune

October 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

1 Nicanor Parra, Emergency Poems (New Directions, 1972)


 and go into my usual dance

I stretch a leg
it could just as well be an arm
I fold an arm
it could just as well be a leg

I squat without stopping my dance
unbuckle both Mister Shoes
throw one of them higher than heaven
bury the other deep in the earth

 I start to get out of my sweater

 at this moment the telephone rings
they call me from Mrs. Office
I’m going to keep dancing I tell them
until they give me a raise

When I first read Nicanor Parra it was such a shock. The dark humour and the plain line are both things I admire now, but I was a much less experienced reader and poet when I discovered Parra. Parra knows that the world is not what it seems and he delights in setting it on edge for us. There are political poems but not a politik.

There is an agelessness to these poems. When I read them again today, they are just as fresh as when I first read them forty years ago. They are still current. Parra is a deadly serious poet full of humour or a humourist full of deadly serious poems.

The Canadian poet Jim Smith is something of an expert on and friend of Parra. He would be a good person to contact if one wanted to know more about Parra. I’ve enjoyed these poems for forty years and yet they still say new things to me.

2 Raymond Carver, Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (Vintage/Random House, 1986)


Woke up early this morning and from my bed
looked far across the Strait to see
a small boat moving through the choppy water,
a single running light on. Remembered
my friend who used to shout
his dead wife’s name from hilltops
around Perugia. Who set a plate
for her at his simple table long after
she was gone. And opened the windows
so she could have fresh air. Such display
I found embarrassing. So did his other
friends. I couldn’t see it.
Not until this morning.

This is perfectly beautiful poetry. Crystal clear. When I read Carver it is like pulling water from a well and discovering an elixir of wisdom instead. Constantly refreshing no matter many times I read it.

3 Ron Koertge, Diary Cows (Little Caesar, 1981)


Got up early, waited for the farmer.
He hooked us all to the machines as
usual. Typical trip to the pasture,
typical trip grazing and ruminating.
About 5:00 back to the machines. What
a relief! Listened to the radio
during dinner. Lights out at 7:00.
More tomorrow.

When I first discovered the work of Ron Koertge it confirmed many of the things I believed about the poetry world. It is possible to be a great writer and escape acclaim or much notice of any kind. Koertge schooled with the John Irving group and is an equal among his peers, yet his work has gone mostly unnoticed. The shame of that is that he is endlessly entertaining, wise and quite willingly brutishly dark. His books are full of wit and hard-earned wisdom. I never tire of reading poems that make me laugh.

4 Wislawa Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand (Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1995)

Reading Wislawa Szymborska, the great Polish poet, is like being invited into another Europe. Her poems pick the locks of your imagination as she roams over her towering intellect like an old woman carefully making tea for her grandchildren. Szymborska is subtle, serene and subversive, and her poems make me wish I were wiser.

5 Donald Hall, The One Day (Ticknor & Fields, 1988)

The One Day is a long poem in three parts. In feel it reminds me of the novel The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older by Robert Ruark. This is an examination of manhood but not bravado. It is about the journey every child takes to become an adult, but, more importantly, to come to honourable maturity. This is a very personal self-examination that is universal, and on Neptune universal might come in handy.

6 W.H. Auden, Collected Poems (Vintage International/Random House, 1991)


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance; how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Simply the best poem by anyone ever. I may be wrong but can’t be far off. And if that isn’t enough, there over 900 more pages of other excellent poems.

7 Miklos Radnoti, Foamy Sky (Corvina, 2002)

Radnoti died during the World War II, but much of his poetry reads as if it were written yesterday. The poems in this collection are both innocent and sweet and the broken bloody teeth of the Holocaust and it is hard to separate them. I find it very helpful to take my gaze off of the North American perspective and watch from another part of the world.

8 Charles Bukowski, Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (Black Sparrow Press, 1979)

It could just as easily have been any of thirty or forty books of poetry by Bukowki. I wouldn’t think of going anywhere, much less Neptune, without the greatest poet of the 20th century. Hands down. He was a complete asshole and a seriously damaged human being, but at his best his poems are flawless. Bold, brave missives about the real nature of the human heart. Bukowski at his best, wrote the most honest poetry we have.

And he’s damned funny.

People shouldn’t take anything that seriously, much less poetry. With Bukowski, half the poems are cannon fodder. The price you pay to get at the good stuff. But it is in there, in every book, poems that make you better understand the world.

9 Alden Nowlan, The Mysterious Naked Man (Clarke Irwin Company, 1969)

10 Raymond Souster, As Is (Oxford University Press, 1969)

11 Michael Ondaatje, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do (McClelland & Stewart, 1979)

12 Peter Trower, Ragged Horizons (McClelland & Stewart, 1978)

13 Bronwen Wallace, The Stubborn Particulars of Grace (McClelland & Stewart, 1987)

The Canadian titles should be self-explanatory.

When do we leave?

Michael Dennis lives in Ottawa. His many books include Coming Ashore on Fire (Burnt Wine, 2009), This Day Full of Promise: Poems Selected and New (Broken Jaw, 2002), Fade to Blue (Arsenal Pulp, 1988).


§ One Response to Michael Dennis Goes to Neptune

  • Jim Smith says:

    I could not agree more with Michael’s analysis of why Parra is such an amazing writer. Bang on! Jim Smith (me!) also wishes he were more of an expert on Parra and more of a friend to Parra!
    Michael will be so well read on Neptune he will be consulted by beings all the way out to the Oort Cloud. As he should be here on this old planet! Love!

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