Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems
Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1963–65)
New York: Rain Mountain Press
Reviewed by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
PHILIP DACEY’S MOST RECENT BOOK is an unusual one for the world of contemporary American poetry; rather than being organized by thematic arc or by the chronology of their writing, these poems are brought together because of one shared formal trait: simply, they are all short.
In his author’s note that begins the collection, Dacey describes the book as “a kind of family reunion,” noting the earliest of these poems dates back to 1970. From the very first page of poems, this book does exhibit a wild diversity of both subject matter and tone not unlike an extended family gathering where, say, an angst-ridden teenage boy in black eyeliner and fingernail polish might be forced into the buffet line next to his back-slapping, buzz-cut, retired-army great uncle. The juxtaposition can be surprising. In fact, on this first page alone, which contains four poems — two one-liners and two two-liners — Dacey leaps all the way from koan to comic, beginning with “How I Escaped from the Labyrinth”: “It was easy./I kept losing my way,” and ending with “The Condom’s Nightmare”: “I grow up/to be the Hindenburg.”
While the book’s abrupt change in tones may at first seem a bit jarring, the technique — particularly in the book’s first section — does serve as an effective mode of separation between the poems, a formal articulation to the reader underscoring that, however brief, each poem is to be considered complete in itself.
Despite its exclusive focus on short poems, the collection still exhibits formal variety. Epigrams and triolets are included here, and, in two of the book’s five sections, poems that, as Dacey notes, “are arguably sequences of short poems linked by an overall theme” and grouped under a single title, their separateness often stressed by the use of numbers or asterisks. For Dacey, the order within each sequence is “immaterial,” as each stanza-poem has individual autonomy to the extent that “poems [stanzas] could be dropped or added without particularly disturbing the whole.” Dacey cites renga as a precedent here; certainly many of these sequences read as variations on the rensaku form, thematically linked sequences of haiku. In the book’s final poem, “Angles,” for instance, each stanza-poem feels complete in itself, but all are thematically connected, all set at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, from the poem’s powerful opening on:
not a presence raised
into air but an absence
excavated into the earth.
Given Dacey’s interest in compression and in collaged, sectioned poems brought together by means other than linear narrative, it’s not surprising that a number of poems in the book allude to — or pay irreverent homage to — Wallace Stevens, particularly his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Dacey’s “Three Ways of Looking at a Condom” parallels three sections of Stevens’ canonical poem. Stevens’ fifth section reads:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Compare Dacey’s final section:
I do not know which to prefer,
The condom holding
Or the condom giving way.
The influence of Stevens perhaps shadows these poems in more subtle and substantial ways as well, notably in how energy created by the juxtaposition between title and poem-body — as well as between sections, in the linked poems— provides much of the pleasure of these poems. Despite Dacey’s poems’ surface simplicity, even the briefest of these can resonate in both humorous and serious ways. Consider his “Art Criticism 101: Remedial Section.” The complete poem reads: “There is no joya/in a painting by Goya.” Without the title, the poem seems a simple tossed-off joke; with it, though the poem remains humorous, a persona presents himself for whom we may feel compassion even as we laugh at him, perhaps even recognizing something of our own stammering insecurities in this comic, forced rhyme, in the speaker’s clumsy attempt to make meaning of something beyond his grasp.
Whether humorous or serious or some combination thereof, these deft poems are often intellectually evocative, and are always entertaining. Mosquito Operas offers us the results of an accomplished writer having a good time with language; we can be glad he’s invited us along for the read.
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Reviewer Sandra Meek’s third book of poems, Biogeography, was the 2006 winner of the Dorset Award (Tupelo Press, November 2008). Her previous book publications include Nomadic Foundations (2002) and Burn (2005), and she has also published a chapbook, The Circumference of Arrival (2001). She is also the editor of an anthology, Deep Travel: Contemporary American Poets Abroad (Ninebark Press, 2007), which was awarded a 2008 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal. She has published more than one hundred poems in journals such as The American Poetry Review, Agni, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry, Conjunctions, and The Iowa Review, and she has twice been awarded Georgia Author of the Year: in 2006 for Burn, and in 2003 for Nomadic Foundations, which also was awarded the Peace Corps Writers Award in Poetry. She is a Co-founding Editor of Ninebark Press, Director of the Georgia Poetry Circuit, Poetry Editor of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum, and Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at Berry College.
Meek, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Manyana, Botswana from 1989 to 1991, lives in Rome, Georgia, USA.