Robert Dana Essay - Critical Essays


A lapsed Catholic, Robert Dana offers a profound sense of a fallen, often brutal world compelled by chance rather than governed by any design. His approach is much like that of Lowell, his teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Although deeply impressed by the sheer force of the natural world, particularly the limitless edge of the ocean and the forbidding prairie of his adopted Midwest, Dana cannot sustain comfort in the unaffected love of such natural wonders. He is too aware of the insubstantiality of the natural world, how every part of it—and ultimately every person within it—must perish. His vision, then, is ultimately sobering, even tragic, despite touches of humor and the reassurance he has found in the experience of love with his second wife, Peg.

Dana studied Chinese philosophy and has taught Asian literature. Not willing to dwell on the emotional calamities of his personal past or to anticipate the rewards of some dubious afterlife, he counsels, with Zenlike calm, the embrace of the moment. His poetry, particularly his later work, revels in the sheer delight of discovering the rich textures of the ordinary. For him, that is the poet’s job: to cast the passing moment and the unobserved object into the noble shape and reassuring permanence of language. The poet’s only magic, he said, “is with words . . . their sounds, their taste, their soft or their steel feel.”

Although trained in formal poetics while at the Writers’ Workshop, Dana came to find natural expression in open verse. Its music, so apparently improvisational, often goes unheard by the impatient ear, but his verse manages syllables, stresses, and vowel and consonant sounds to create an engrossing aural event. He once compared his verse lines to jazz: “I wanted to achieve in words what the jazz musician achieves in notes and time signatures.” Dana said his style presented his reactions to his comprehensive observations through his various senses regarding what he was experiencing. He emphasized that poems enabled such moments to survive beyond their occurrence. Dana compared writing poems to a form of reporting scenes and events. Critics have referred to his work as being descriptive, and Dana has concurred that he strives to share the realism of what he sees and hears through poetic devices so his readers can interpret those images to perceive similar sights and sounds.

As Dana aged, his poetry became less morbid, although he still appropriated death as a theme. In The Other, Dana presents mortality as a sadness to mourn while celebrating the lives he grieves. He juxtaposes imagery, his wife breathing while she sleeps with the husk of his sister lying in her casket. Dana recognizes joys of routine activities and expresses memories of places he has lived and people he has known without becoming too nostalgic. He delights in the satirical aspects and incorporates dark humor in his poetry to balance the serious, sometimes macabre or depressing, tone. He notes that his use of sarcasm and irony is sometimes so subtle that critics fail to notice it. Aspiring to continue advancing his craft, Dana endeavors to create poetry in unique styles and structures that differ from his previous work.

Some Versions of Silence

Dana’s first major collection, Some Versions of Silence, published just two years shy of his fortieth birthday, divides into three strikingly different sections. In the first are traditional narrative poems in which Dana, like Frost or Edwin Arlington Robinson, captures the anxieties, frustrations, and surprises of quotidian experience, the recollections of a poet locked in time, bound to the real. They are moments of generous inclusion for the reader, poems about resilient fall flowers, crowded supermarkets, signs along a highway, and the trying experience of love.

With disconcerting—and deliberate—abruptness, the second section forsakes such familiarity. These poems, like Pound’s experiments in strict imagism, do not have the reassuring flow, music, or rhythms of free verse. These are spare, minimalist bits, cryptic occasions for meditation, like Zen koans that cannot be adequately explained or paraphrased. “What word./ One/ without syllable,/ without edge;/ more moving/ but more/ than moving.” They are abstract reflections that eschew metaphor and image and refuse commentary on the events that occasioned them.

In the closing section, Dana brings together these two impulses—the concrete and the abstract—to create quasi parables. Palpable objects are given a spiritual resonance. Under the poet’s careful eye, caged birds, hawks in flight, a comb left in an empty room, autumn trees, lightning, and the descent of night can all be coaxed into suggestive symbols within slender lines that nevertheless sing. The closing poem, “The Stonecutter,” tells of a craftsperson fashioning from heavy stone the subtle curves of a woman. It is a fitting image of the isolated poet finding consolation in the exertion of craft itself as a strategy for discovering the spectacular in the unpromising.

The Power of the Visible

The poems in The Power of the Visible resist easy summary. They are Dana’s most Eastern-influenced works, enigmatic, fragmentary verses with scant sense of plot, place, or character. These are cool, clean, precise, impersonal poems that speak, thematically, of the hunger for permanence amid flux, for stability amid the rush of inevitable movement. In “The Stone Garden,” Dana offers a telling Zen allegory of the monumental efforts of a man to fashion a tidy garden; he then goes in to read the newspaper obituaries, a sobering reminder of the untidiness of the larger world. Love here is inaccessible, even a burden. Achingly close to a natural world that is frustratingly inscrutable, paralyzed within the vastness of time and space, many of the poems are slender presences, thin ribbons of words amid forbidding white spaces. Dana offers as solution the poem itself, the calming music of the lines. What transfixes the reader here is the language, particularly Dana’s gift for unexpected coinages, striking figurative phrases, and unusual diction, that transmutes the ordinary into the delightful: “a boredom of summer storms,” “the sliding/ murder of the calendar,” skin that clings like “a jacket and gloves of ice,” a woman’s face that is “a page of snow,” and pink pigs that “blister the hillside.” It is the poet as conjurer and alchemist (one selection concerns a dying Merlin) who provides the reader with what the poems so desperately seek: a place apart, albeit aesthetic, amid the chaos.

In a Fugitive Season

The poems in Dana’s third major volume, In a Fugitive Season, mark the beginning of his reclamation of what he termed “the hard details of reality.” These poems recall Dana’s earlier sense of forbidding vastness but are vivid and concrete. The vastness is both natural (images include mountains, prairies, night skies, snowstorms, and the sun) and temporal (in a cycle of European poems, he visits Stonehenge and ruins of ancient...

(The entire section is 2925 words.)