With the publication of his fourteenth book, Norman Dubie continues to demonstrate both the high quality and the continuity of his art. As in his previous collection, The Springhouse (1986), he treats three general subjects: personal (although rarely confessional) experiences; natural scenes and objects, especially poems of the Southwest; and historical incidents, often drawn from the history of painting. Sometimes he combines the subjects, in a curious blending of objective reality and visionary—occasionally hallucinatory—impressions. Indeed, if a single word must be chosen to describe Dubie’s art, that word is visionary. His visions, however, are not those of a William Blake or a William Butler Yeats, who drew images and symbols from a conceptual framework. Dubie’s images, in contrast, spring from a great richness of sources and are not imposed externally as a superstructure to the poems. In “An American Scene,” for example, Dubie combines images of a laboratory specimen, a poster depicting tuna boats, the poet’s memories of his mother, and a fragmented scene of a sexual encounter with a lab technician. On these images he imposes startling allusions to Henry James and Ludwig van Beethoven. By juxtaposing ideas, images, and impressions in combinations that are entirely unexpected, he startles the reader, throws off one’s sense of the expected.
Dubie’s technique of parataxis, however complex its application to images as well as language, is not intended to serve as a literary parlor game. No matter how unrelated the images seem to be, they tend at last to coalesce into a unity. Examined as a complete experience, “An American Scene” combines present and past, memory and observation, fantasy and reality. The central “scene” of a seduction is ironic, veiled. Does the protagonist (who is not necessarily the poet Dubie, but a persona) seduce the lab technician, or does she seduce him? Sandwiched between the prologue to, and completion of, the act are symbols of fecundity and death.
—the posterOver the autoclaveHas five red tuna boatsRising and falling in a black sea.
Similarly, the protagonist’s recollection of his mother combines symbols of fecundity and death:
My mother is marrying again. They standIn the photographBefore his honeysuckle hedge in Los Angeles.I came to Boston because of the earthquakes.And mother’sMigraines—the light of which is religious.
Even the curious allusion to Henry James has its place, to connect the protagonist’s recollection of his mother with a death-fantasy:
Mother sincerely believes that Henry James died in 1905In that Pullman carCrossing the great alkali desert of Arizona. At leastHe wished to is what she believes.
Why should mother suppose that James “wished to believe” that he had died in 1905 instead of 1916, his actual date of death? And why in the desert of Arizona instead of his snug English flat? Obviously, the notion is absurd. Whose wish is involved—the mother’s or the son’s? Imagination controls, distorts reality, so that in fantasy the sophisticated author returns, an exile no longer, to “home” in America:
I stripped and turned off the lamp.She brought two paper cupsFull of brandy something the deaf Beethoven wroteCame over her radio.I took an old soft paperbackAnd tucked it under the small of her back.It was pure lust .
Why Beethoven? Though deaf, he could “hear” in his imagination exquisite music that would endure. By means of the radio or the paperback, past and present come together. As the seduction is completed, scenes both sordid and beautiful combine: “The brain glowed in the dark above us.” In its solution of formaldehyde, the glowing brain, symbol of permanence, of death-in-life, is macabre witness to the sexual encounter.
Complex, emotionally resonant, “An American Scene” is typical of poems in Groom Falconer . Superficially, many verses strike the casual reader as rambling, self-indulgent, but at the core, they carry their own...
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