See It Now. You Are There. History Relived. Newsmen Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite have nothing on the poet Norman Dubie, who continues to demonstrate that poetry is not only an appropriate vehicle for self-expression but also for the interpretation of history. If journalism is history in a hurry, however, then poetry—in Dubie’s hands—is history recollected in tranquillity, with a personal touch.
Dubie is a notable exception to the typical mode of contemporary American poetry, the personal “confessional” mode with self as subject, all too often a palimpsest of diminishing returns. Although Dubie writes in a variety of manners, including the confessional manner, he is best known for his narrative-dramatic views of individuals—figures real and fictional, famous and obscure, sane and otherwise—in the grip of history. Dubie’s development of this characteristic mode is illustrated in such earlier works as Alehouse Sonnets (1971), In the Dead of the Night (1975), The Illustrations (1977), The City of Olesha Fruit (1979), and The Everlastings (1980), and encapsulated in Selected and New Poems (1983), which sums up the first decade-and-a-half of Dubie’s career.
Dubie’s historical portraits, especially of artists and religious figures, vaguely recall the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. There, however, the resemblance ends. Dubie’s free-verse manner is strictly contemporary, representing not a throwback but an evolution of the personal confessional mode, from which it differs only superficially. The confessional mode is an honest attempt to address the uncertainties, discontinuities, diverse impressions, and relative truths of contemporary life without being evasive or making excessive claims. It authenticates at least the poet’s reality. By speaking through his or her own voice, the poet gives unity to diverse material, assumes responsibility for it, and yet “confesses” that the point of view is only his or hers. Still, everyone already knows this, and meanwhile the confessional mode can become tedious, if not downright self-centered and solipsistic. So, for the most part, Dubie dispenses with the confessional framework. Instead of writing, “I got up this morning, took my temperature, ate my corn flakes, and thought of poor Jan Hus,” Dubie begins with “Poor Jan Hus was in trouble.” Yet the consciousness behind the two statements is the same—the split modern consciousness on which different stimuli operate at once.
Instead of making a last-ditch effort to impose coherence on incoherent reality through the confessional mode, Dubie’s technique recognizes and incorporates the incoherence. As a result, Dubie has sometimes been criticized for being difficult and obscure, but he is no more difficult than T. S. Eliot and other earlier poets who reflected the cacophony of modern civilization. Further, he is certainly not as incoherent as ordinary day-to-day life—the experience, say, of watching the television evening news interrupted by commercials while one eats dinner, listens to one’s spouse discuss affairs at the office, and answers phone calls from one’s children, salespeople, and heavy breathers.
In some ways The Springhouse is atypical of Dubie’s poetry, since it includes a large proportion of personal poems mixed in with the historical portraits. Whether The Springhouse represents a new direction for Dubie is unclear at this stage, but the collection is representative in the sense that it illustrates Dubie’s range—he is certainly not locked in to one kind of poem. Also, The Springhouse is a good place to begin with Dubie’s work because the poems here are easier than in some earlier collections but still are illustrative of his technique.
Take, for example, “The Funeral,” whose lines supply the collection’s title. The poet has the audacity to begin the poem with an indefinite pronoun and an obscure image: “It felt like the zero in brook ice.” The “zero in brook ice” apparently refers to a...
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