Reviewed by Barry Kitterman (Belize 1976-78)
On the surface, Philip Dacey’s poems have less to do with his time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the early ’60s, than with the rich life he has lived since. This collection of poems, with one or two notable exceptions, is not about Africa or the great world out there. Philip Dacey’s concerns are those things held dear to any American poet living in our time, in our country, anyone who has devoted his life to letters and teaching and family.
Like any poet worth his salt, Dacey loves individual words and phrases, the bricks and mortar of poetry. His ear for a good turn of phrase is evident throughout. When his name is misspelled on a mailing label, he riffs on the variations of Dacey that occur to him: “Daley” and “Daily” and “Diurnal.” Even
at work, melting time.
no tedium, quite,
all queynt and caper.
(“Not Correcting His Name Misspelled on the Mailing Label”)
Further on, in “Vocabulary,” the speaker encounters an electrician with a poet’s appreciation of language. When the speaker of this poem (someone a lot like Dacey, himself) casually drops the word “ambience” into conversation, it opens the door to a further exploration of “the right word / in the right place…crackling through the air.” That electrician
… must love to say
“wattage” and “volt,” as palpably beautiful
in his mouth as the tools slung
at his waist. Now I choose carefully
what I say in front of him, words like
“louche,” “chiasmus,” “sprezzatura,”
whatever will create sparks,
start a fire.
Dacey is the author of twelve books of poetry, and the recipient of many an academic honor. He knows poetry, and he calls up the work of other poets and writers, some living and some who came before, among them William Carlos Williams and John Ashberry and Sherwood Anderson, names that will be familiar to readers steeped in the poetic tradition. But Dacey’s allusions to literature don’t act to shut out readers. Rather, they invite a reader into the work. In “Keats at Bedtime” the speaker has memorized Keats’s famous poem “To Autumn,” and he is reciting the poem to his sleepy lover. The murmured recitation is a “second performance,” an “encore,” that brings a Keatsian beauty to the moment of after-play:
My roving hand underscores
“bosom-friend” and “ripeness,”
“touch” and “hair soft-lifted.”
We know we are “the next swath”
the hook spares, and our “twined
flowers” are children and friends,
certain places, the daily round.
A playful poet, Dacey takes joy in bringing language to unusual places, but I find him more like e. e. cummings than Ogden Nash. Each time one of his poems threatens to sever its ties to gravity altogether, he brings it back to earth:
I want to name a book Anywho,
to honor my father,
the title-word one of his rare
plays on language, along with,
“It shows to go you.”
There are rewards here for lovers of poetry, and for writers of poetry too, who will enjoy exploring the form Dacey has devised: each poem is made up of five stanzas of five lines each. (He calls his invention a format, rather than a form, and it brings on nothing like the terror of iambic pentameter that sometimes causes my students to faint and become business majors.) Reading these poems is like reading a selection of sonnets, each poem limited to five stanzas that fit comfortably on the page, manageable in their conciseness.
Like Walt Whitman, Dacey is brave enough to sing himself and celebrate himself. Poems about life and death, public radio and condoms, shoehorns and rosaries can all be found here. And there is one beautiful poem of Africa, “Praying Mantises, 1963”:
Now decades later, the dead insects return.
They sit at the foot of the bed
or on the arm of a chair.
Though small, the delicate green creatures
cast a great shadow,
which surrounds and includes me.
These are not the poems of the young man who went off to join the Peace Corps. Rather they are the poems of the mature writer who came through that experience, and others, and made art from his life:
So many words the repositories
of the human spirit, each
with its little sail
catching puffs of speech,
and I riding in those boats forever.
There is a place at the table for everyone who has passed through the Peace Corps experience, regardless of where they served, in what capacity, for how long. There is a place at the writer’s table as well, for everyone who has chosen to document that experience, whether it is through a collection of heartfelt letters home or a commercially successful travelogue. A special corner of that table is reserved for poets like Philip Dacey, who have built on their Peace Corps years, establishing a career devoted to poetry. The long lineage of great expatriate writers who left what they knew and traveled abroad continues to call to anyone who wants to see his or her words in print. Writers head overseas, hoping to discover their material. What they may discover, to their surprise, is that the time overseas opens their eyes to see (and hear and smell) the life they will write about later, a life that may have little to do with their overseas experience. Philip Dacey’s career as a writer and a teacher may owe little to his time in Africa. Then again, it may owe everything to that time spent as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Barry Kitterman coordinates the creative writing program at Austin Peay State University, where he is the fiction editor of Zone 3 Magazine. His novel, The Baker’s Boy, received the Maria Thomas Fiction Award in 2009, and he is the author of a collection of short stories, From The San Joaquin (SMU Press, 2011).