Gail Dendy’s vivid and exhaustive sketch of life

Closer than that

Closer Than That by Gail Dendy, Dye Hard Press, 2011

The three-syllable feet, in particular the dactyl (stressed, unstressed, unstressed) and the anapaest (unstressed, unstressed, stressed), are effective means of making poetry swing. The dactyl tends to flow like a waltz; the more staccato anapaest evokes tap-dancing or the Flamenco. Consider the effect of the dactylic opening of Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Voice”:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me…

Now consider Edgar Allan Poe’s anapaestic tribute to Annabel Lee:

And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride…

When I first read Gail Dendy’s poems I discerned something dance-like in their cadences, seldom continuous like the above examples, but sporadic, light-footed. After a few more readings, I discerned her technique: the strategic placement within prosaic, barely scannable phrases, of three-syllable feet. In “The Apprentice”, a re-telling of the creation story, she employs dactyls: “moistened the”; “felt how it”; “fashioned a”; “breath from my”; “this was the”; “called it a”; “sooner had”, and so on.

In “Linda” she employs anapaests: “in the field”; “by the lake”; “reappear”; “as they run”; “through the wind”; “and was top”; “of the class”, and so on. Only rarely does she combine these trisyllabics with entire lines that can be scanned. For example, in “With Her Feet on the Ground”, she combines the iamb (unstressed, stressed) with the anapaest:

My sister sat with her feet on the ground.
My sister pulled down birds from the sky. 

Here we see two iambs followed by two anapaests. A little later she reverses this: “through the gap in her teeth she pulled them down”. Dendy adds muscle to her dancing stanzas with some tight assonance:

                       Its whiteness

is a siren flashing her ample breast,
the blue, ruled lines are perfect veins
that pump the blood.
                       (“To Write or Not to Write”)

I’d like to use the fishing imagery in this poem, with its titular allusion to Hamlet, to demonstrate another interesting technique of the poet’s. She casts an image, a plum, say, or an amethyst, lets it run for a while, lets it make contact with associative images, and then reels it in.

In “To Write or Not to Write” (one of Dendy’s recurring themes), she begins with a “blank page”. The poetic current takes this image to a “Siren”, thence to “veins”, thence to “doodles”, “trough”, ”beak”, “lizards”, “sea of creatures”, “hook”, “net”, “blood”. Frequently the images are too far apart, lexically, for metaphorical impact, and too close together to avoid cluttering. The bait comes off the hook.

Another disadvantage of this method is that it can lead to rather weak endings, for example “Conclusion: my heart is a bloody nymphomaniac” (“Ruminations on the Plum”); and, “This is a very short poem” (“A Short Poem”); and, “her unborn sister knows neither breaststroke nor crawl” (“The Terrible Quest for Size Zero”). Dendy’s best poems, in my opinion, are those which employ only a few images, and develop them into leitmotifs. One of my favourites is “The Search”, which I quote in full:

And my mother would search for her hairpins
on my father’s side of the bed,
and in the morning would light the fire,
and we would break bread, and eat.
And she would search for us
in the damp forests, between
the owl’s call and the deer scent,
and when we came home she would light a fire.
And she would light a fire
at bath time, and slip off her robe,
and soap her legs and her belly,
and pin up her tresses, and braid them,
and I saw how she would light a fire
in my father’s eyes, and search in the mirror
for his approval, and he would stop
writing with his slim pencil,
and his eyes would search for the pins
in the grey snow of her hair,
and the deer were far away,
further than the owl’s call.

This is a tender, beautiful poem with a stunning conclusion: the implication of Eros (in the deer) and Thanatos (in the owl). Another poem which succeeds in this way is “Anatomy” where each stanza is a segment, a metaphorical vertebra. I love the Shakespearian pun at the end:

for it is safe
between the arrowheads
of my shoulder blades,
pointing towards
the country
of my hips.

I’d like to return to “The Apprentice”, which is placed, appropriately, “in” the beginning of this collection. The poem is written in the first person and seems to be as much about poetic creation as a take on the Genesis stories. Indirectly it recalls the anthology’s title, Closer Than That, which then connects it to the last poem, “Finding Home”:

…and to see the moon ripening in the window, whole and lemony
once more, and to stand in my childhood room
which is neither here nor there but as unreachable as it’s ever been,
so that my heart either skips or misses that crucial step
until I can hardly bear to examine the distance passed,
knowing how far it is, and altogether how much closer it is than that.

Poetic creation is an almost-but-not-quite experience, like the beautiful cover of this book, which depicts a young person trying to reach a ladder to the moon. William Blake had different misgivings. In his engraving, to which this cover ironically alludes, the ladder from earth is leaning firmly against a new moon, and the young person is about to begin his ascent; but the caption is disturbing: “I want! I want!”. It is interesting to note that this cautionary engraving comes from a group of sixteen, entitled “The Gates of Paradise”. To her credit, Dendy is not a moraliser like Blake, not even in the first poem of Part 1V, which is entitled “I Want”.

The apprentice, who botches the creation, reminds me a bit of Ted Hughes’ Crow especially in the poem, “Crow’s First Lesson”. This crow seems to represent the dialectic of art and nature, which Genesis presents as good and evil: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

We lose our innocence, symbolised by the story of Adam and Eve, once we realise that we are going to die; and it’s when we lose something, that we most keenly want it back – like childhood in “Finding Home”. This is where religion kicks in. But there are other consolations for the tragedy of consciousness: there’s the biological – having children; the creative – writing a poem that may linger after you have gone; and the transcendent – the experience (Bergson called it “duration”) of timelessness. After all, the word, “ecstasy” literally means standing outside oneself. However, these are only partial consolations – they have to be (or not to be).

The apprentice is the poet as well as some kind of nature god, like Pan before the Bible conflated him with the devil; or like Hughes’ crow. Both defer to “the Boss” who seems not to be the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity of the Bible.

In “Crow’s First Lesson” God tries to teach crow to say “love”, but when he opens his beak, out come killer sharks and pestilential insects. God exhorts him to a final try, and he vomits a man’s head “jabbering protest”. Next he vomits a woman’s vulva which “dropped over man’s neck and tightened”. They struggle “together on the grass”, and God is incapable of parting them. Crow seems to have created sex and death instead of love, and he flies “guiltily off”.

If you look at Hughes’ human synecdoches, then man is presented as Apollonian (art – the talking head), and woman as Dionysian (nature – the vulva, locus of ecstasy). The apprentice in Dendy’s poem is also guilty, shutting down with

Since then I’ve tried to say sorry.
I did. I really, really did.

But Dendy doesn’t go binary like Hughes and the Bible; her persona “becomes” the tree of knowledge, a threshold where man and woman are at least not stereotyped. However, the consequences are just as disastrous for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.

The idea of a threshold where opposites merge is presented in “Optimist” with the Yeatsian image of the world above (celestial) merging with the world below (chthonic) on the reflecting surface of still water:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry.
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water, among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
                      [“The Wild Swans at Coole”]

Dendy’s “lake” is the paradoxical half full/half empty glass of water. She sees the female moon in the full part and the male sky in the empty part, but she focuses on the meniscus:

                      I see the surface
Where air and water are kept apart,
where the inevitable quest,
whether I fly or swim,
is how to keep on breathing
Her resolution of the binary is amusingly pragmatic:
But now
I must drink up this water
and let you go. 

This is an uneven collection in my opinion. When I read a line like “as a horde of bees mumming against the light” (“Waking”), I wonder if Dendy is being deliberately flippant or if this is some kind of postmodern comment on the instability of the written word. The predictable line would be “as a swarm of bees buzzing against the light”. Assonance is the connective. Or is the poet attempting to freshen something stale? If so it doesn’t succeed, because it renders the neologism corny. The stanza doesn’t get better:

For one split second my head buzzes
in great, colourless, doleful drifts.

All those adjectives! And the idea of drifts causing the persona’s head to buzz, especially shortly after we have been listening to bees ‘mumming’! It’s only fair to say that the poem gets better after this; but it never reaches the breathless beauty of the best poems, like “The Space of Forgetting”, for example:

The smell of the sea is bitter.
I have left it in my memory
which is left in a drawer.
When I open the drawer
you dance a peculiar jig.
I cup memory in my hands
and place it back in the drawer.
I cup my hands
and all your jigging, dancing steps
dribble through my fingers.
I open the drawer
and a smell of musk
is apparent.
I close the drawer
to forget you
and your mad dancing.
I open the drawer
and the sea promptly drowns me.

In his An Essay in Autobiography, Boris Pasternak says this of Tolstoy:

Throughout his life he could always look at an event and see the whole of it, in the isolated self-contained finality of its moment, as a vivid and exhaustive sketch – see it as the rest of us can only see on rare occasions, in childhood, or at a crest of happiness which renews the world, or in the joy of some great spiritual victory.

I believe Gail Dendy has this vision because she is passionate, and I believe that she realises it in her best poems.