Although Philip Dacey initially nursed the ambition of becoming a novelist, he early realized that his talent was better adapted to a considerably shorter form. His poetry is often marked by a witty approach to those most personal of matters, love and sex. Even so, some of the sensibility of the novelist can be detected in his preoccupation with historical figures, who become major characters in his poems. Many of his quasi-biographical yet imaginative poems have focused on Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walt Whitman. He has also turned his eye toward painter Thomas Eakins.
In his poetry, Dacey has consistently pursued an interest in poetic form. This focus may have helped him overcome difficulties he has faced in establishing his personal voice as a poet. Many of his works have suffered from an incomplete command of tone, especially noticeable when he takes a more humorous approach to his subjects.
His greatest accomplishments have tended to fall within two distinct areas. His early, somewhat haphazard pursuit of a poetry of sexuality and love has matured through the years into a more reflective approach to personal matters, as represented by such works as “North Broadway & Grand.” His imaginative poems, taking the point of view of such characters as Whitman and Hopkins, often seem to spring from the same font of inspiration as these more overtly personal poems.
Distinct from these are Dacey’s works of a more purely imaginative nature, in which accidents of phraseology or the incongruities of contemporary life have inspired poems of a nearly absurdist nature. The accidents and incongruities serve as the building blocks of a fabricated, artificial reality, as in the poems “The Shopping List,” “Four Men in a Car,” and “Serenade.” These works immediately and unabashedly reveal themselves to the reader as artifice and display Dacey’s talent for witty and entertaining verse.
Dacey’s 1977 Pushcart Prize-winning poem “The Sleep,” a delicately balanced poem about the sexual act, approaches its subject through evocation rather than description: “The limbs begin to believe in their gravity./ The dark age of faith begins, a god below/ Draws down the body, he wants it/ And we are flattered.” In the last of its three sections, the poem compares the point of sexual climax with a kind of departure. “Already we are forgetting/ Where we were/ And left from.” Despite being a poem about so intense an experience, the language of the poem has a flattened and perhaps even melancholy feel to it. This may suit the poem’s secondary subject, for it is also a poem offered in memory of poet Anne Sexton.
The Man with Red Suspenders
The reflective and highly personal poem “North Broadway & Grand” acts as a preface to The Man with Red Suspenders. Also a memorial, it is addressed to Dacey’s brother Owen, who was “the Dancing Policeman of St. Louis,” and to the memory of their late sister Joan. The poet immediately connects the strands of their separate lives in the opening lines: “O, when she died/ he was the traffic cop/ again.” The poet describes Owen as being present, at least symbolically, at Joan’s death:
only this time he was there at the crossroads to lead her home, his sister, through the deepening dark, no light but that of his presence
The poem ends with what seems to be an official statement of Owen’s abilities as traffic cop: He could direct moving traffic at the city’s worst intersection, where even traffic-guidance machines had failed before him. The poet ascribes Owen’s unusual success to a purely human element.
Put Dacey in. And the human touch eased the knot, jam, block, and everyone got home safe, everyone.
“North Broadway & Grand” is a poem of reassurance, offering a vision of a loved one’s death eased by the “human touch.”
Numerous poems in The Man with Red Suspenders owe more to imagination than to experience, and often seem to play more on shallow expectation than worldly wisdom. “The Hitchhiker” speaks from the point of view of a figure apparently intent on being sheerly contrary: “If you are light,/ I am dark./ If you are clean/ I have grease/ on my knapsack.” The short lines emphasize the brittle tension created by the intrusion of an unwanted presence in a private car. At the end of the poem, the discomfort prevails, for the hitchhiker switches places with the driver.
In “Dialing a Wrong Number,” Dacey creates a second-person figure, possibly a male, who has found himself talking with the wrong person on the telephone, despite having taken precautions against this: “You know you have dialed/ the right number./ You were careful.” The person who answers is both the wrong person and the right one: “She says she gets nothing these days/ but wrong numbers/ and has come to need them.” The unintended connection becomes, by the end of the poem, yet another hoped-for connection that may never happen again.
“The Shopping List” takes a more decisive step toward imaginary circumstances. The first-person speaker of the poem is immersed in a dreamlike experience, in which he cannot make the items on his shopping list correspond to the items he takes off the shelf. The reader comes to presume the speaker is male because of what he finds when he turns: “I U-turn into the next/ aisle and find women on display,/ parts and whole,/ frozen or fresh.” When he makes this turn, not only the store but his shopping list, too, changes. “Now every item/ refers to women./ My mother is on the list/ and...
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