Reviewed by Brendan O'Connor
Reviews are necessarily reductive. That being said, any review of Norman Dubie's latest collection will be especially so. The poems are so various in subject matter, tone, and form that it is difficult to characterize them in a few pages, much less a word. Nevertheless, in searching for a word to offer the reader at the beginning of this review, I wonder if it is possible to call a book of poems “entertaining” without seeming to condescend to the author. It is not my intent to patronize Norman Dubie; however, these poems partake of the exuberant concoction of irony, valediction, and sheer playfulness that makes Allen Ginsberg's poems so “entertaining” to many of his readers. In this respect, it is significant that Dubie shares with Ginsberg an engagement with Buddhism--in Dubie's case, Tibetan Buddhism. Reading Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum, we willingly abandon our objections (if we have any) to beautiful nonsense; at the same time, we are rightfully suspicious of the poet's addiction to extravagant, even indulgent, language and surrealistic detail. The poems are Maya, in Buddhist terms: the whirling dance of illusion we call the material world, whose gaudy surfaces peel back from time to time to bring the reader face-to-face with the conundrums of existence.
Throughout his entertaining book, Dubie addresses the naggingly serious question of “the happiness / that suffering must instruct” (“The Last Sentence of the Evening”), though he cannot resolve it. The problem is a peculiarly Buddhist one: as Buddhist thought evolved in the Mahayana tradition, people stopped regarding nirvana (extinction of desire or “enlightenment”) as a condition separate from the worldly condition of samsara (suffering perpetuated by desire, roughly.) The way to enlightenment, then, was not to overcome or circumvent suffering, as in the older Indian religious traditions, but to experience the liberating insight in the midst of samsara: not over or around suffering, but through. The problem for Dubie, therefore, is how to regard suffering as potential happiness--as salvation, really--when there is “so much pain / and the consequences are real.” How can he or anyone give suffering its due as a means to enlightenment without diminishing the real consequences of suffering for other living beings? Dubie's speakers evince anxiety at feeling “inhuman,” as in “Confession,” because of their perhaps misplaced commitment to regarding suffering with equanimity:
Something inhuman in you watched it all,
And whatever it is that watches,
It has kept you with loneliness like a mob.
In “The Pasha on the Hill,” a poem of desperate honesty, Dubie goes one further. The speaker pokes fun at his beliefs, commenting that
Now that everyone suffers,
even the practice of torturing prisoners
seems the highest immutable kindness
in what, if not a nod to the Abu Ghraib debacle, surely sounds like a prophecy of the same. The speaker goes on to admit that, yes, the pervasiveness of suffering has disheartened him to the extent that his worldview is in jeopardy, that he “may not / find the heart to hope for the more perfect misery.” The lines bear elegant witness to the speaker's (or author's) experience at the extremes of faith, though Dubie would probably hesitate to call it that. Still, his question confronts many a lonely seeker: Just how far are we willing to go in pursuit of enlightenment? How much misery are we humanly able to hope for?
And so, beneath their mesmerizing surfaces, the poems in Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum compose a fragmentary chronicle, a far-from-complete record of atrocity and heartbreak stitched together with a longing for justice. Dubie's protagonists are haunted by the fear that, despite the eloquence of their testimony, there may be “no one to read it” in the long run. Dubie prefaces “Elder Gogol's Pond at Plokhino Skete” with a quotation from St. Eleazor to that effect, repeated for good measure: “There is no one to read it. / There is no one to read it.” The epigram represents what we might call a crisis of faith for the author, or his protagonists, in more ways than one. In an obvious sense, how can the speaker maintain faith in the universal law of karma, which holds forth the promise of restitution, when the accumulated total of suffering in the world continues to provoke doubt? Reading the poem, however, we see that the speaker's view of the situation--involving a Bolshevik officer who has recently finished off “the river saints of our province”--is somewhat more complex:
All the executions of Bright Week.
He laughed beside the pond.
But then his young daughter suffered
a hernia in her sleep
and died vomiting lengths of her own feces.
The gruesomeness of the image speaks for itself: Does the crime justify the punishment? Even more troubling to the aspiring Buddhist, can one hope in fairness for “justice” to be done, when it seems inevitably to entail an increase in suffering for one person or another? There are no easy answers in this poet's cosmos, but it doesn't keep his protagonists from wishing for some: “I sometimes wonder / if it wouldn't be less trouble / having an obvious god” (“The Desert Census . . .”). From Dubie's perspective, we can imagine that this is the most dangerous fantasy his speakers entertain: they have become so disillusioned that illusion looks more and more attractive; they are tempted to trade an “enlightened” outlook for a comforting one. In the context of the book, we might even call it a sin, since everything depends on these figures' willingness to take suffering at face value, and more.
An interesting question with regard to Ordinary Mornings concerns the place of the personal lyric in a longer work so preoccupied with historical personages and events and so given to surrealistic techniques. The poet who is capable of writing lines such as “The propane ghost / of the dead girl weaves through the broken permission / of trees where caterpillars are boxing rainbows” is equally capable of a relatively straightforward narrative about an undertaker who “thinks [a deceased woman] is actually her younger sister / whom he adored in grammar school” and gives her the other woman's face, to her family's and the town's amazement. The last poem in the second section of Ordinary Mornings, “Of Art & Memory” could have been little more than a slightly macabre and poignant short story in the wrong hands. In the larger scheme of the book, though, Dubie's childhood memory (or replication of such a memory) adds a note of hopefulness and purpose to the whole enterprise: the brilliant, clueless subterfuge of “the mortician, who everyone / acknowledges was a genius” suggests that the very absurdity of existence--not to mention the futility of human effort in a world where even “snow fails at totality”--creates a space for beauty. The claims of art to enshrine memory and give an accounting for struggle and loss are disingenuous, to be sure--since the mortician is able to remake a dead woman in the image of her sister. But the townspeople cannot deny his exquisite achievement. In his ignorance, he has gotten hold of something, though his evocation of the woman's life is at odds with the official version. The poem's ending, in which the dead woman's sister faints upon seeing her double in the casket, brings home to the reader the impossibly precarious position of the artist: in his moment of triumph, the mortician gets a glimpse of the abyss:
If she had died in her faint,
striking her head on that pew seat
my brother collapsed into . . . what
would the mortician have done then
with his best work behind him in a sister's grave?
In debt to the absurd conjunctions that make art possible, the artist cannot help but see his work as an unsatisfactory stay against the emptiness of existence. The awareness of this condition is written all over the poems of the tellingly-named Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum, decked out in fabulous language for the day's blood sport.
As with any book, some of these poems are more successful than others. The reader will draw his or her own conclusions; I will say that, in general, the shorter poems stayed with this reader longer than the multi-page sequences did, though I enjoyed the longer poems well enough while reading them. The poems that stayed with me the longest I made the backbone of my discussion of the book--“The Pasha on the Hill,” “Confession,” “Of Art & Memory,” “Elder Gogol's Pond . . .”, “The Desert Census of Elder Cyril . . .”--but many others reward repeated readings. Dubie concludes Ordinary Mornings with a poem called “Riddle,” which is exactly what it claims to be: a question mark at the end of the poet's long sentence, leaving the reader hanging in midair, just as Dubie intended, we guess. Dubie seems to align himself with the speaker in “Riddle” more closely than in other poems; the poem takes the form of a dialogue between the poet/speaker and one Laura, who interrupts a quiet winter evening by observing that “a brazen mathematics / of stars in the illustrated night / is signaling its approval to us.” The skeptical speaker may find this irritating or merely quaint; either way, he teases Laura with his response: “I say, “Oh, really? And which stars are these, / precisely?” ” The pleasure of “Riddle” comes in Laura's rejoinder to the speaker's by-now-familiar resistance to the idea that the universe might be anything but indifferent:
Childlike, with a sigh, she points and whispers,
“That little blue one, in Orion,
just beyond the stomach
of the hunter and his trapezium.
What do you think, how many wars
in our new millennium will reach
their natural conclusions, and blink?”
Laura's “childlike,” gently impatient dismissal of the speaker's ironic stance is remarkable in this context. Dubie leaves open the question of whether the simplicity of faith might, in fact, give the believer access to the kind of secret knowledge that permits her to know “precisely” which star is signaling its approval. In Laura's affirmation of our continuity with the universe, the poet also teases the reader with the prospect of an antidote to the skepticism produced by suffering and our experience of a less-than-obvious God. It is a fitting end to the book, and one that showcases the best formal qualities of Dubie's writing, to boot: the carefully lined-up cascading syllables of “Orion” / “trapezium” / “millennium” / “conclusions,” the subtle internal rhyme of “think” / “blink” and its loose echo of “stomach”; and, best of all, the short last line, running its course in three beats (after three lines in tetrameter) a moment before we expect it to end. As the reader reaches the word “blink,” the line blinks, omitting the fourth beat and leaving us hanging, prosodically as well as spiritually.
In closing, my advice is not to let all this suffering distract you from the gorgeous scenery: the poems are entertaining, and funny in ways I can't convey in an admittedly reductive review. On the other hand, if you can't bring yourself to ignore the subtext of the book, at least don't bother trying to resolve its paradoxes. Even the poet hasn't been able to do that--or, more likely, he's not interested.