Dean Rader, Works and Days (Truman State University Press, 2010)
Dean Rader’s T.S. Eliot Prize winning book, Works & Days, takes for its title the name of Hesiod’s great epic on labor, and thus Rader asks his reader to consider his work in a tradition longer than that invoked by most contemporary American poets. The title seems to make a claim to epic proportions, but at the same time, in the poet’s choice to echo a previous epic so closely rather than giving himself the room Virgil gives himself with Homer or Dante with Virgil, Rader exhibits the sense of belatedness or reduced possibilities one expects from a postmodern poet. Put another way, Rader manages to seize the epic’s claim to encyclopedic inclusiveness and yet acknowledge the fragmented epistemology of our age. In this way, Works & Days reminds me of Berryman’s Dream Songs. When epic was new, it strove to be, in the words of one admirer of Paradise Lost, “the story of all things.” In the age of growing individualism, we see that encyclopedic urge turned inward in Whitman and Wordsworth: the story of the self as all things (Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes”). With Berryman, and now with Rader, we see a Whitmanian largeness filtered through the legacy of Freud, which is a sense of a divided self. The encyclopedia is now private and random, the epic inclusiveness echoed as unending pastiche.
Berryman gives us Henry and the unnamed minstrel as fragments of the self; Rader gives us Frog and Toad, characters from Arnold Lobel’s beloved books for children. Refashioning well-known kiddy characters into instruments of philosophical/lyrical meditation is a risky business; one could easily drift into the facile cleverness of The Tao of Pooh. Rader avoids the pitfall of cuteness through both careful selection of his borrowed characters and disciplined use of Lobel’s material. The choice of Frog and Toad – as opposed to, say, Dora the Explorer – gives Rader the advantage of working with characters that already have, I dare say, a sort of Homeric dignity about them. Frog and Toad as depicted by Lobel are types in bold outline, more like Achilles or Hector than like Hamlet or Emily Bovary. Thus, in Rader’s capable hands, they take on an instantaneous air of symbolic importance, unhampered by psychology and background. Rader furthers this effect by refraining from following Lobel’s storylines. He imports the characters into new contexts rather than bogging down his poems in references to the stories in Lobel’s books. Frog and Toad are free to represent isolated aspects of the self rather than a whole identity. If one considers the characters as treated by Lobel, one might be tempted to posit Toad as id to Frog’s ego, but Rader does not push such an identification. They could as easily be Yeats’ Hic and Ille as Jung’s “self” and “shadow.” In the first, and best, of the Frog and Toad poems, “Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness,” Rader uses sparse, unrhymed couplets to augment this effect of bold Homeric outline:
The sun was hot in the sky
like a muffin in a bright blue tin.
The day was just the day.
The wind was nothing more
than wind, the leaves were leaves
and kept on being leaves.
The directness of these lines puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis’ commentary, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, on Homer’s use of stock phrases applied to the natural world:
Yes; but under all these, like a base so deep as to
be scarcely audible, there is something which we
might very lamely express by muttering ‘same old sea’
or ‘same old morning’. The permanence, the
indifference, the heartrending or consoling fact that
whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is, always
enters into our experience and plays no small part in
that pressure of reality which is one of the
differences between life and imagined life. But in
Homer the pressure is there. The sonorous syllables in
which he has stereotyped the sea, the gods, the morning,
or the mountains, make it appear that we are dealing not
with poetry about the things, but almost with the things
Through Frog and Toad, Rader gives us our own divided psyches as “the things themselves.” Like Yeats in “Ego Dominus Tus” or “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Rader makes of the fragmented modern self a subject both universal enough and, in its own reduced way, heroic enough to be the subject of epic poetry.
But there is more to this book than Frog and Toad. There is also a fascinating play between the experimental and the lyrical, a sort of dialogue between two poetic strategies that also reflects a sense of the self divided. This division is clearly seen in the collection’s several love poems. There are poems, such as “Love Poem in 5 Couplets + 1 Line” and “Waking Next to You on My 39th Birthday,” which, while imaginative and original, are fairly straightforward in their lyrical appeal. Take for example these lines from the latter poem: “The bed we share is a ship. / You are the captain / in a big blue hat.” The image is compelling, and the blue hat is a surprising and amusing touch. The poem is, however, a standard love poem, based on a metaphor traceable at least as far back as Petrarch. Yet in “Talking Points [Love Poem]” the same lyrical impulse is fragmented into bullet points: “and the way the stars in their wool coats shine inward;” for instance. In “A Genealogy of Unfinished Love Poems” the same fragmented effect is achieved by leaving out words: “Your eyes are so _____.” This poem also approaches the subject of love through the differing perspectives of elegy, comedy, haiku, and epistle, as if any one genre were incapable of capturing the full experience of love. The effect is unsettling, a sense of a self in restless pursuit of a coherence not quite obtainable.
This same restlessness is evident in the book’s series of self portraits. These poems, scattered throughout but increasing in frequency as the volume draws to a close, offer a glimpse of the poet through a fractured lens, a kaleidoscope effect. “Self Portrait: Rejected Pop Song,” for instance, offers a view of the poet via a more mischievous and baffling version of Billy Collin’s “Litany”:
I am not the songbird
I am not the devil’s bunghole
I am not the oyster in the child’s mouth
I am not the shantih, not the shantih[.]
One might object that the reader is left with no idea of what the poet, then, is, but that is perhaps rather the point. Rader draws on postmodern notions of self as unincorporated fragments bound only loosely by the illusion of identity. In this framework, any poem could become a “self portrait,” and thus Rader offers a number of such poems on very diverse topics. As the book races to its conclusion, the self portraits shift into a series of birthday poems, each one less conventionally bound than the last, until we arrive at a final prayer from no one to nobody:
O silent measure,
drink down the body:
drink down time’s cup.
In the blank space, in the spacious imagery, in the large and empty vowels, these line convey a longing for dissolution of self, the release of the mystic as filtered through Wittgenstein and Derrida.
Not all of the book’s poems are as obscure. There are charmers as well, like “The Poem You Ordered,” a playfully surreal engagement with the reader – again in the mode of Billy Collins – that takes a darker turn at the end. Another example of Rader in a more playful vein is “While Looking up the Etymology of ‘Country’ in the OED, I come across ‘Cornucopia,” a poem appropriately bountiful in its play with language.
Works and Days is an engaging book that manages to be both experimental and “accessible,” if by that latter term one doesn’t mean dumbed-down. More than just a conglomeration of poems, it is a book with a subtle architecture, an ironic unity fashioned on the theme of fragmentation. This coherence and sophistication is an outstanding achievement in a first book.