Selected and New Poems
While it is unusual for a poet to publish a selected poems before the age of forty, this volume is justified and welcome. A prolific poet, Dubie has published eleven volumes since the early 1970’s—five major collections, six small-press gatherings. All are out of print. Along with a dozen previously uncollected poems written between 1980 and 1984 and published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, and elsewhere, Selected and New Poems presents representative work from four of the five major collections (In the Dead of the Night, 1975; The Illustrations, 1977; The City of the Olesha Fruit, 1979; The Everlastings, 1980). Although readers familiar with Dubie’s work may regret the omission of selections from the first of his five substantial collections (Alehouse Sonnets, 1971), Selected and New Poems is nevertheless welcome, for it makes a body of significant and distinctive work available to a wider audience still in the process of absorbing a contemporary American poet of striking originality who is himself very much in the process of becoming.
Admired and imitated, Dubie is considered one of the most radical imaginations among postmodernist poets. The postmodernist designation is accurate but potentially misleading; it should not imply a break with literary tradition, for Dubie draws freely and impressively not only from contemporary experience but from the history, culture, art, and intellectual traditions of both East and West. Moreover, he has much in common with the modernists—especially Wallace Stevens—in his love of color and his combination of a rich texture of detail with ideation, a mingling of the sensuous and the cerebral. Dubie’s work may be understood as belonging to a tradition of Romanticism reaching back to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In Dubie’s preoccupation with human perception as a cocreator of reality, he resembles his contemporary John Ashbery.
Dubie’s method and his meaning grow out of his attention to the endless ways in which the world may be seen. He ranges over the history, literature, art, and thought of the world, juxtaposing figures, scenes, and episodes from the distant past and the contemporary period, mixing the colors of then and now, the near and far away. His method combines monologue and narrative with painterly strategies, storytelling with image making. He is indebted to Georges Seurat, the developer of Pointillism. Dubie sees the world as a painter sees it. In “February: The Boy Breughel,” the sight of a red fox in snow, a rabbit in its mouth becomes
Two colors! Red and white. A barber’s bowl!Two colors like the peppersin the windowsof the town below the hill.........................A sunrise. The snow.
There are frequent references to paintings and photographs. In “A Widow Speaks to the Auroras of a December Night,” the speaker describes her surroundings:
. . . The watercolor my husband purchasedIn Caracas remains in the cornerBound in twine, and dark caramel papers; it has aBig postage stamp depicting a native girlHolding up a blue turtle.
Everything else in the poem is rendered pictorially. Dubie tends to place a frame around descriptions. Here a view of the widow’s yard is framed by a window. Inside this frame, he sketches details: the widow in her cane chair; a gramaphone, its horn “plugged with a sock”; an artery in the widow’s ankle that stands out, and “crossings of blood.” The poem concludes with a view, again framed by the window, of snow, pines, and “two wide sheep that/ Are the blue-white of a chunk of fat// Falling off the dangerous, true edge of daylight.”
Titles of other poems suggest an enduring interest in painting and photography: “After Three Photographs of Brassaï”; “Sun and Moon Flowers: Paul Klee, 1879-1940”; “Jacob Boehme’s Triptych of Winter Hours: 1620.” In these and others, what is composition in a painting or photograph becomes composition in a poem. Even where the subject is unrelated to painting or photography, appearances are rendered in painterly and pictorial terms. In “Aubade of the Singer and Saboteur, Marie Triste,” shadows in a cell at Dachau remind the speaker of “the masquerade dance in the woodcut by Hans Burgkmair:// Its bird shapes, that procession of men threading the dance,/and Maximilian I greeting them as they twist past the banquet tables.” The arrangement of details in “New England, Compline” is quite painterly: “A dark thick branch in the last light” reminds the speaker of his grandmother’s hand “Dropping linen napkins on the shrubs to dry.” As is often the case, looking into a natural scene, one comes upon art, and in the art, something natural again:
The stone nude beside the garden is bathingIn deep shade while inside the mouthOf the nude in a copper dish a sparrow washesBoth its wings.
Dubie is most explicit about the relationship of art to the natural world in “Winter Woods” from The City of the Olesha Fruit. Although the poem is not among those chosen for inclusion in Selected and New Poems, it is useful in explicating Dubie’s work.
The new for us is the last thing our worldsHave forgotten, brought back by someone, notOut of necessity, butOut of the otherness of invention . . . .
Dubie appears to be tirelessly inventive. The dazzling particularity of his surface texture is always interesting, sometimes brilliant. His poems give the impression of a poet who writes with facility, drawing easily upon great resources of imagination. At the same time, the poems require that the reader distrust every impression, for Dubie is always writing, in one way or another, about perception—and the endless ways in which the world...
(The entire section is 2693 words.)