Church of the Adagio: Poems
by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1963-65)
Rain Mountain Press
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991-93)
Reading Philip Dacey’s poems is like having a conversation with a funny, sophisticated, and insightful friend. You’re laughing, you’re nodding in appreciation, you’re saying, “A-ha. I never saw things that way, but-wow-you’re right.” And you don’t want to say goodbye anytime soon.
If you pick up Dacey’s new collection of poems, I guarantee you will:
At, for example, a poem about a llama who shows up in Dacey’s driveway. “I was all stammer and gawk and disbelief,” Dacey writes.
When the llama ventures into the middle of the road, however, Dacey must act:
. . . I saw the headline, “Llama killed by truck.”
Dropping the rake, I raced to rescue him,
who now stood frozen, straddling the centerline,
looking this way and that-oh, too much room,
too little clue.
Dacey is at home with formal poetry as he is with free verse. Indeed, he writes formal poetry with such dexterity you don’t know you’re reading one of his formal poems until you look back at it and notice the rhyme scheme or the repetition of words at the end of lines.
What poet would dare employ a sonnet to address the disturbing relationship between Chiquita, the American producer and distributor of bananas, and Colombian death squads? In Dacey’s capable hands, the right rhyme can highlight a devastating wrong:
Peel this banana and get a surprise.
You’re looking down the barrel of a gun.
Or else a knifepoint’s glinting near your eyes.
Bananas for your health? When you see one, run.
Like the best literature, Dacey’s poems teach us — or remind us — what it means to be human. They speak of our capacity for reverence (“Guest of Honor”) as well as our ability to wound (“Neighborly”); they address our ability to conjure beauty via art, performance, and music (“Nijinsky: A Sestina,” among others) and our power to destroy (“At the Hiroshima Photo Exhibit”); they evoke our ingenuity (all of Dacey’s poems themselves as well as some of their subjects) and, simultaneously, as in “The Hike (Altea, Spain),” our frailty and our resilience.
In the latter poem, Dacey aims to walk to a lighthouse with his five-year-old son, but their destination “seemed much nearer than it was.”
Call it off? We soldiered on. Emmett was game,
I stubborn, and quitting impossible — we’d come too far.
Imagine our hunger, our need, if, returned home,
we had to admit to the others, “We didn’t get there.”
I could keep summarizing, and extolling, the great conversation I had with Dacey and his latest book.
But it would be better, I think, simply to suggest that you buy his book and begin a conversation of your own.
Reviewer Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books, including Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award and a finalist for the 2014 Ohioana Award in Fiction, and The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Award and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. He is a professor of English and directs the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop at West Virginia University.