In his introduction to Norman Dubie’s The Illustrations, poet Richard Howard says that Dubie’s poetry centers on “the experience which has the root of peril in it, the ripple of danger which enlivens the seemingly lovely surfaces, the ’ordinary’ existence.” That perilous quality is evident in nearly all Dubie’s work; it is the very thing that guarantees its success. Still, “the ripple of danger” creates a difficult poetry too, embracing experience in exciting, innovative ways. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. As Howard puts it, “Dubie identifies that experience, by reciting it, with his own life to a hallucinatory degree: We are not to know what is given and what is taken, what is ’real’ and what ’made up.’”
The juxtaposition of “real” and “fiction” is particularly engaging in much of Dubie’s early work. In Alehouse Sonnets and The Illustrations, Dubie wrote historically based poems in the form of dramatic monologues. Perhaps it is this for which Dubie is best known; not only do these monologues create a space in which the poet can move outside himself and the time in which he lives, but also they allow him the intellectual advantage of innovation as well as imagistic and allusive complexity. The result is an engaging, demanding verse. Readers must work to understand; they must either clarify the obscurity or be resigned to the “hallucinatory”; readers must not relent in the attempt to discover the value of such complexity. These are imperatives; readers have no choice.
Still, one reader will find Dubie’s work elegant and beautiful; the next will find it distant and foreign, purposely ignoring accessibility. Both appraisals may be justified. Dubie’s demands on his poetry and on his readers, however, set him apart from nearly all other contemporary poets. His is an original, fanciful voice, and often the distinction he makes between reality and fancy is fuzzy. This creates a sometimes lethargic, somnambulant effect, quite like walking along some foggy, hazed-over street under white lights, dreamy, disembodied, and more than a little disenchanted. The reader is much like the character in “Hazlitt Down from the Lecture Table” (Alehouse Sonnets) who “ . . . just/ sat out the stupor in a corner.”
This seems to be Dubie’s exact intention, though. Dubie’s imagination draws him—and readers—away from the mundane, real world and intensifies that “stupor” by displacing him to a paradoxical, mundane, exotic world. The lives of Dubie’s characters, their triumphs and their failures, are no more special than are those of his readers—and no worse. The difficulty, then, is the importance readers may attribute to the allusive figures or to the thick, ambiguous imagery. One assumes that the allusion means something essential or that knowledge of the allusion will clarify the poem. Readers may puzzle for an interminable time, trying to unravel an obscure image. Each of these, however, is a failed reading; such scrutiny may aid comprehension, but it will not guarantee tidy answers. The man who “sat out the stupor” knows and accepts this.
The importance of Dubie’s contribution to the poetics of his time is evident. More than most of his contemporaries, Dubie has risked much to offer an unusual, resonant voice. Granted, his poems are difficult, evasive at times, incomprehensible at other times, yet his imagination addresses very real issues. That Dubie expects his readers to work is really no fault inherent in his poetry; already, too many other poets write easy, disposable verse. Dubie’s poetry is not disposable. It will not let its readers let it loose.
While some of Dubie’s critics find his work incomprehensible, still others accuse him of being too impersonal. This is especially so in Dubie’s early writing. Alehouse Sonnets, for example, is characterized by a detached, unidentified persona. All one knows of the persona is his affinity to William Hazlitt, the nineteenth century English critic, whom he addresses throughout the book. One can imagine, after reading Alehouse Sonnets, a companionship made...
(The entire section is 1725 words.)