A Look at the Poetry of Bruce Dethlefsen and Ralph Murre
by Sarah Busse
Breather by Bruce Dethlefsen. Madison, WI: Fireweed Press, 2009. $15.00.
Crude Red Boat by Ralph Murre. Ellison Bay, WI: Cross+Roads Press, 2007. $10.00.
Because I have been interested for a while in trying to identify the Midwest as a region, rather than just the lumpy leftovers after the other regions have been carved out and defined, I was interested to see what Todd Boss said in Verse Wisconsin #101 when asked to consider what made his poetry “Midwestern”:
Maybe my poetry’s Midwesternness is in its straight talk. The plain English. The respectful attitude. The generosity, a certain warmth and maybe naïveté about it. A willingness to share joy unabashedly. The landscape, of course. A disinterest in hipness, irony, anger, angst…
I’m sure there’s plenty to argue with here, but it seems to me not a bad place to start, if one wants to look at a possible Midwestern aesthetic. I’d like to take this quote then, and apply it to the work of two Wisconsin poets, Bruce Dethlefsen and Ralph Murre, similar in style and subject, who seem to me to be doing something in their poems sort of, well, Midwestern.
First, their music. Boss mentions “plain talk” and both these poets tend to use simple, everyday diction. You won’t need to keep the dictionary on your lap for these poems. But for them (as for Boss) “plain” doesn’t mean flat. In a period when lyricality in poetry seems to be suspect in many corners, both these poets employ joyful sound play and pleasure regularly, combined with a deceptive simplicity. These poems should be read aloud to enjoy them fully. (Murre’s second book, Psalms, is an extended song, but for the sake of this review, I’ll stick with Crude Red Boat, which offers plenty of music of its own.) One can imagine, for instance, these lines of Murre’s set to music:
Another chance to get it right
To do the things I shoulda done
Tear down the fence I built
Quit the party
Let running things run.
Nothing is free, they say
But I’ve found some pretty good deals…
Or here’s a poem which makes its own melody, out of the play between words:
lovers, their love
fireflies and prairie flowers
in the tall grass
and storms, but they pass
over the tall grass
and loam, sweet loam
where we will lie
in the tall grass
and they wonder
in their cells
in towers of glass
how we live lives
so small, in the tall grass
That’s “in the tall grass” in its entirety. Musical, simple, and it goes down as deep as the roots of bluestem.
In Murre’s strongest poems, his ear for lyric and rhyme evolve into a looser, improvisational, talkier rhythm, one that swings to its own beat, freely. Check out this opening to “Time Saver,” the first poem in the book:
A stitch in time—and then another
and pretty soon time is all sewn up;
holes patched with moments of distraction
and remnant ends of daydreams—
a catnap basted on over that rip
the vodka put in Saturday night—
a bit of needlework and dark thread
and the damned hole is darned
where some fool tried to save daylight…
In Dethlefsen’s case, the connection to music and lyric is even more pronounced. Here’s a favorite, “When Somebody Calls After Ten P.M.” in its entirety:
when somebody calls after ten p.m.
and you live in wisconsin
and you’re snug in your bed
then all’s I can tell you
somebody better be missing
somebody better had a baby
or somebody better be dead
This has a Leon Redbone, late-night growl to it, with a wink. (I should note that Dethlefen has a history of combining his lyric talents with music: many of us remember the band Anna Ran Away. Now he’s part of another musical operation, Obvious Dog.) There’s a combination of humorous diction and syntax with an underlying serious content. The poem’s success rides on the fact that the reader knows, as does the poet, that someone could be missing, someone could be dead. As with Murre, above, the seeming simplicity of the poem belies its more serious subject.
But for all I respond to his ear for lyric, at times Dethlefsen moves beyond obvious rhyme and refrain and song rhythms to something rich and strange. The eyes become pearls. Take for instance the poem “Suicide Aside”:
try watching birds
regard them as they fly like salt to bread
spice up this crusty world
a giant spider web
their lines of flight
tie up and bind the world
birds jump up in the air and stay
you try it
flap your arms for all you’re worth
no way you’re stuck
they’re free to leave the world
lemon zest and lime and berry
sugar coffee cream
and all the rest
sublime delicious flavors how
our eyes drink in the world…
I’ve quoted the first four stanzas in their entirety because you have to have that much to hear the flow, to feel the ride he’s taking us on. Like later Millay, with her not-quite-free cadences, Dethlefsen has here created a sound that injects intense lyricism into a free verse like no one else’s.
Sometimes Dethlefsen pulls off a brief poem that simply cannot be improved upon, whose effect is so simple and so timeless that no amount of commentary or scholarly disquisition could improve or clarify. Here is “Read Aloud.” See if you can remove or add a single word:
as the child reaches
underneath the book
to help the father prop it up
their hands touch
underneath the book
and the story resumes
The effect of the final line is, to this reader anyway, breathtaking in how slowly and with what finesse it opens up, and keeps opening up. What at first glance might seem like a throwaway poem becomes, on consideration, a timeless and graceful moment.
Besides their shared musical ears, these men know how to have fun. And they do, again and again, in their poems. Let me start with Dethlefsen, this time. First, there’s his joke-sy, folksy humor in a poem like “In the Living Room”:
the following day
the authorities asked how it was
she’d come to sleep with her dead husband
for three nights running
couldn’t tell the difference she said
yeah they asked
but what about the smell?
well like I just said
Dethlefsen has fun with us, with language, and with tweaking the common tropes we’re all used to. Here’s one of my favorites, “Spring Comes Around” in which spring is once again personified as a young girl (as spring seems always to be in poems—yes, it could be I’m guilty of that myself in an old poem or two) and yet Dethlefsen freshens up everything from the title image to the relation, and somehow catches early spring in Wisconsin pitch-perfectly:
a cold wet compress to her forehead
a brisk rub and warm breath
on her pale little hands
a shiver her eyes blink twice then open
spring comes around slowly
you gave your mom and me
quite a scare there kiddo
here feel my heart
it’s good to have you back
From the taut pun of the title, to the colloquial second stanza (notice how the poem warms up in diction, trope and relation of speaker to subject throughout), to the pitch-perfect capturing of the cold, wet, pale beginnings of Wisconsin spring… Niedecker would be proud.
Murre knows how to have a good time too. Here are the opening stanzas of “Ascension”:
I guess I believed it.
I’d heard that souls flew up to heaven.
Organs I’d seen were those of chickens,
so I pictured his soul as a purple gizzard
with little bluebird’s wings, and
waited, curious, at Grandpa’s funeral,
for the fluttering from his open casket, the
desperate flight around the room.
Murre invites the reader—he dares us—to share in the pleasure poetry allows. Or read one of my favorites, “To the Wolves,” a prose-y ramble that delights me every time. Here’s the first stanza:
It’s always been a problem, this name; usually taken as a verb—
to Ralph, synonymous with “to hurl.” Not good to be named
for an act of regurgitation no matter how liberal your outlook.
What emerges in each of these books, as the reader continues, are photo albums of sorts, snapshots of a variety men (sometimes the poets themselves, sometimes not) at different stages in their lives, each believable, each complex, each irreducible to a single continuum in any direction. Take Murre depicting an old fellow sailor, “Mr. Powell”:
Aaron’s in the chair behind me, silent for now…
I’ve forgotten there’s anyone, anywhere, as I float
in my bubble of deep thought.
I jump, as he begins the night’s recitation—
epic poetry, and he, likely the only man who ever knew it,
knows it still. Verses in his veins. Volumes of memory.
He’ll go on now, stopping only for coffee.
Each night shared with this mate and the masters….
How refreshing, to find two poets who are as concerned with the people around them as they are with their own experiences, who turn their careful gazes onto the folks they share the neighborhood with. No one gets reduced to a cardboard cut-out here. The effect is subtle—not an identification, so much as a willingness to identify with, an ability to capture characters within their poems that are at once unique and recognizable. Murre’s “Against the Wall” starts
Like the beaded-pine wainscot
of his backwoods tavern, up north,
Clarence has darkened over the years,
hearing the lies of fishermen and poets;
the truths of hunters, fresh from the kill.
He’s been scarred by fights and carelessness, but
cleaned up and preserved by Irene…
And for a short-story as poem, look no further than Dethlefsen’s “Bolt Cutters.” This first-person (brief) monologue is strong enough to make me hope he’ll publish a whole book of such character sketches.
I will say I have some frustrations with both of these writers. Each has an obvious political bent that occasionally gets in the way of the poem (although there are other examples of political poetry that do work in each book): see Murre’s “and by the way” or Dethlefsen’s “Constellations.” And Dethlefsen at times has a tendency to cloy. He’s a little too fond of the moon, perhaps, and his poems can at times end on a bit of a treacle-y note. “Switched at Birth” may be an example of both of these. After imagining, as many children do, that he’s been switched at birth with someone else, and really should be in another life:
that by rights I should be
turning the wheel of the blue fishing boat
careful of the current watching the shoals…
the poem earns our attention when he doesn’t abandon this whimsy in childhood, as most of us do, but continues to muse into adulthood:
I always knew I’d gone to the wrong funerals
watched the wrong tv shows
married the wrong people…
This is interesting stuff. So when he ends with
I could call him I suppose…
I’ll ask him two questions
will we be switched at death?
and what is the color of the moon
from a blue fishing boat?
To my ear, this is a rather flat, sweet ending to an intriguing premise. Whether he’s reaching too far here for effect, or not far enough, may depend on your perspective. Either way, it disappoints. Another weak spot, to my way of thinking, in Dethlefsen’s work is his overly consistent approach to line breaks. I found myself hoping, on this read-through, that he may in future poems explore breaking his lines across grammatical phrases, or running them on a little longer, just to see what happens.
But just when the reader is beginning to tire, one comes across a poem like “Two Kleenexes”:
the most annoying thing
about having facial hair
is that you need to use
at least two kleenexes
when you blow your nose
and there’s the extra cleanup
when you eat ice cream
you can’t believe
the mess it leaves around the mouth
my abuser used to buy me
an ice cream cone afterwards
god help me
how I looked forward
to those ice cream cones
That’s it, the poem entire. Track the movement: he starts with an outright gross image of a messy sneeze, and moves then to an innocent food like ice cream—symbol of childhood and all things happy… except for that “mess it leaves around the mouth,” a surprisingly sensual, and adult, image. From there, he leaps to a flat statement: “my abuser used to buy me / an ice cream cone afterwards.” With this the bottom drops out of the poem, we’re not sure where we are—but instead of filling in the picture any more (Who was the abuser? What was the abuse? How old was the speaker when? Where?) he ends with absolute restraint, on another seemingly simple statement:
god help me
how I looked forward
to those ice cream cones.
Our initial impressions, the grossness and the sweet juxtaposed, the blurring of childhood and adulthood, the stickiness, the (oog) “two kleenexes” of the title… Each reader must decide for herself, but I’m won over. And in this poem, I disprove my own complaint: the alignment of phrase and line works for him here, in flattening out the tone of voice and the poem’s movement to a rudimentary, child-like, pace.
Murre also has his weak spots. He can write slack, when he’s not watching out. A poem like “Rock” doesn’t do very much on the page, starting:
Rock—smoothworn, black, warm of sun
Big enough to sit on
Still a stranger on this dolomite shore
Having just arrived at the last ice age…
The poem ends:
Before clocks, before calendars, before time
Teach me… Rock
We’ve just not come very far, and the language doesn’t hold me as it does in his best poems. Perhaps that’s the point. I’m not sure it’s worth a poem. Likewise “A Good Reed” doesn’t seem to move far, or dive deep. And I don’t know what to do with “of cattle and crows”—which sounds like a lot of music covering up a mess:
sacred vows and sacred cows and crows, now
cawing their dark truths yet
perpetuating straight-arrow myth of flight
dark of night concealing all
but light’s most ambitious effort to be free
of bushel, bursting from doors just ajar
to reveal fields, newly mown and so early sown
so neatly drilled with crop of weedless wonder…
It sounds nice, but where, exactly, are we?
One of the most interesting moments in Murre’s book comes with his inclusion in the middle of the volume of “A Short Eulogy for Arvin Murre,” which is, as I read it, not a poem at all, but the very real, historical eulogy for his father. If you read the notes, you’ll learn this was the piece that started Murre writing. Including it here, in the midst of poems, is startling. It interrupts. The voice we use in writing our poems is different, necessarily, than the voice we use in a piece like a eulogy, right? Our audiences are different, our roles different…or are they? Murre’s choice to include the piece here opens the book up in a surprising direction. The decision seems naïve at first reading. As I went back and back to the book, however, I realized how absolutely true to this particular author is this inclusion of his elegy. It offers yet another snapshot of a man’s life, but with a difference. And it erases completely, temporarily, the distance between poet and speaker. It’s the sort of risk I applaud.
I don’t want to make any too-big claims here, based on just two books by two guys. But it does strike me that they share a lot of similar traits, and that there’s something very, well, dare I say “Midwestern,” about these poems. This should in no way limit the appeal of these authors, nor damn them with the faint phrase, “regional.” My aim is not to try to define “the” Midwestern voice or style, but perhaps to hint our way towards “a” possible voice among many, a shared set of concerns and approaches, in their ability to catch ordinary people, in their openness to experience, to lyricism, emotion. In their ability to feel and to capture feeling in a poem. And I come back to the ideas of Boss quoted earlier, with his emphasis on generosity of spirit, the possibility of joy, and the “disinterest in hipness, irony, anger, angst.” …I’ll go ahead and dare this much: both the poems of Dethlefsen and Murre feel like they couldn’t have grown up anywhere else. These poems come out of our soil, our lakes and rivers. Our weather. And like the weather in Wisconsin, you’d better keep your eye on them. Who knows what’s a-brewing.