book The Other

reviewed by Richard Holinger

Published in Issue No. 149 ~ October, 2009

Having recently turned 80, Robert Dana composed the poems in his new book, The Other, with death’s pull in mind. Far from constricting the poet, the certain coming has allowed Dana to fully embrace his elegantly informal verse structure to illuminate ebullient, transcendental themes.

In The Power of the Visible (1971), the narrow-columned, left-justified lines recounted personal relationships from a narrative distance. Later, Romantic leanings blossomed most spectacularly in Yes, Everything (1994), quotidian events filtered through an Emersonian transparent eyeball. Ten years later, the relaxed, open line came to fruition with The Morning of the Red Admirals (2004).

The present volume celebrates Dana’s age — in all its meanings — with simple reminiscences delivered with gravity and grace, the poems’ speakers conversationally guiding us through recollections when on the beach, in the mountains, abroad in Europe and, his favorite setting, around his Iowa home. Employing simple, declarative sentences in mostly unenjambed lines, as in “Except,” the speaker accentuates his imagery with afterthought fragments:

In town, where the water whirls swift under the bridges,

            a hawk hangs in the high air.
                                             Blunt broadwing. (10)

Notice the nuances of rhythm: the swift-flowing rising river water suggested by three iambs and an anapest is followed by the slow, deliberate double spondee, “hawk hangs” and “high air,” suspending the fast-paced river’s movement for the nearly stationary hawk. The alliterative “Blunt broadwing” emphasizes fascination with the bird, symbolic of

All of us waiting.

                      Except the river (10).

Nowhere in Dana’s previous work has he confronted the vastness and quiescence of nature with such directness, his fascination, terror and intimacy derived from spring blossoms to mountains “snowy and cloud-flagged” (55). The invocation of D.H. Lawrence encourages the reader to blend the two writers’ themes, both believing “…the vast marvel is to be alive” (16).

The familiar yin-yang tension of Dana’s past work also unifies and dramatizes these offerings, beginning with the title poem, “The Other,” implying two contradictory forces, persons or states of being. Dana’s settings unfold in dualistic complexity, the friction of opposites giving life its most interesting and invigorating dimensions. Drought follows flooding. “…[T]he steady breathing of my sleeping wife” (39) follows the death of his sister, a nun, “The Great Complainer” (37). Prayers follow blasphemies. “A taxi full of blood” (7) opens “Alive”; “Soft silence of summer afternoons” (8) concludes it.

The poems’ quiet power lies as well in understated spirituality. The poet faces late age by luxuriating in the immediate, concrete and available landscapes he realizes will soon escape him. This humble appreciation lends itself to a supplication beyond himself, as though the simplest beauty arrives as a gift that wants acknowledging (“October Glory or Duster’s Song”):

I hike,
Read my eyes dry, water color badly,
      And try to teach myself to pray as my old cat does.

At first light,
               An aria of hums and rumbles.
Later, a song to food and fresh water.

                           A little vesper hymn, perhaps,

As the valley slowly fills with darkness. (56)

The book ends with “Elegy for a Hometown,” Dana’s benediction to his past life, to the generation of poets he will ultimately follow, and to his current life in Iowa with his beloved wife, cats and the natural world, all of which he loves to transform into words. The poem elucidates life’s evanescence and serves as an appeal to something beyond the physical world:

Soon, I'll bury my own shadow & slip away like sunlight.


                 Simplicity's what I'm best at.

* * * * * * * * *******************************

        Wind & slapdash from the whereafter. (76)

The poet may assert that “Simplicity’s what I’m best at,” and if speaking of living a life reminiscent of Walden Pond’s simplicity, that might be true, but these lines display an intricate wordplay, rhythmical subtlety and thematic complexity as rich and fulfilling as anything Dana has written.

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Richard Holinger's poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Witness, The Southern Review, Boulevard, and Flashquake. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. He has lived in the Fox Valley west of Chicago for 30 years, where he writes a column for a local newspaper, facilitates a writing workshop, and lives with his perfectly nuclear family of four, plus dog. Currently, a collection of flash fiction is in the works. Degrees include a Ph.D. in creative writing from U.I.C.