To focus attention on the posture his poetry has assumed since his first collection, The Day I Stopped Dreaming About Barbara Steele (1966)—which begins the evolution of his commitment to the power of dreams and the nature of imagination—R. H. W. Dillard has placed his most recent work at the head of The Greeting: New & Selected Poems. In the poem “The Greeting,” he asserts himself as an epistemologist of the nonrational mind who has “always known the dream/ How it . . . flares . . . fades” and reminds his readers that female characters and the theme of linkage remain important to his poetry.
The poem “Walking with Young Women” suggests that the poet’s fascination with women derives from his tentative perception of them: “Walking with young women as in a dream,/ As in memory, as in fact,” he says, adding the world at large to this mode of comprehension in “Dream-Land, Landscape like a Dream.” The richly textured nature of his mental experience also moves Dillard to treat objects not simply in and for themselves but also as analogies for states of feeling—a habit which gives rise to his favorite prosodic mannerism, the simile.
As an example of this technique, Dillard makes extensive use of private symbols in “January: A Screenplay.” Based on the separation of two lovers and their eventual reunion, this long poem—framed throughout by the directional tactics of a screenplay—invests personal objects and features of setting with the emotions of the main characters. The hands of the separated lovers, along with other significant images, constantly recur, even in such allusions as the hands which “frame/ . . . the camera’s eye.” There are, for example, “gloved hands,” and dreams that “touch here,/ . . . hold like hands,” and “Her hands holding yellow roses.” The roses themselves, the “silver ring . . . on her finger,” the “silver chain around his neck,” the “silver and enamel/ sun,” the “tiny golden heart . . . the pin with its two clasped hands,” as well as works such as plays, dances, and novels, and occurrences such as rain and light, function as talismans in and touchstones for the lovers’ fantasies.
Crucial to the plot of this poem is the separation of the lovers; it allows them to unite in memory (which seems to be a function of imagination) and ignites their obsessive thoughts. As the woman in the poem says, “’To be with you I have to journey,’” and when the lovers reunite at the end of the poem, Dillard emphasizes their responsibility to each other, foreshadowing this by references to Advent and the Angel of the Annunciation, and suggesting that love has a moral significance when it engages the imagination.
The effect—one might say the moral flavor—women give to the energies and fantasies of men occupies an important part of Dillard’s poetry up to his collection After Borges (1972). Women may cause a sort of delicious confusion in the male mind. In the poem “The Day I Stopped Dreaming About Barbara Steele,” the poet wonders if “In the last dream before waking,” a woman is “More flesh than real,/ More real than the dark before?” Moreover, in “Inside Sally,” a woman’s name is given to a play in football, a man’s game. In “The Black...
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