Friday, April 20, 2012

REVIEW: Waiting for Better by Matt Dennison

While studying fiction as an impressionable graduate student I was often surrounded by those concentrating in poetry.  I mostly listened, believing these writers to be the most pure, the most dedicated to the craft of writing on a word-by-word level, unquestionably the most difficult of forms.

This said, I’m often and admittedly intimidated when a poetry chapbook lands in my lap, thinking I might not be able to fully appreciate what is set out in front of me, tactfully built with such care that even what is left out of a line is often where the power and movement are found.

But, as if often the case with poetry with which I connect, Matt Dennison brings an accessible voice in his chapbook Waiting for Better.  There’s a straight-forward tone in the poems running through this collection that carries the reader easily from one to the next and on and on, and I reckon that’s one of the big wins in any work. 

Though rarely a poet myself, I do understand images and that’s what I came away with after reading Waiting for Better.  Sure, there’s a clear command of language and I don’t want to take away from anything Dennison worked toward, but as a reader it’s the use of images in an original way that will always stay with me, prompt me to recommend a book or chap to a friend, another writer.  I was not disappointed, such as with this from the poem “At Ease”:

“His head moves flatly/ from side to side until/ the gunner-blue eyes sight/ me and he advances slowly,/ carefully, hiding/ behind clumps of chairs/ tables of trees…”

The difference between lightning and the lightning bug, as Twain put it is what I see in Dennison’s work.  Clumps of chairs, tables of trees.  There were untold words ready for use in these lines, but clumps and tables are not words I would have thought to use.  I love when that happens in any form.

Another example comes in the poem “What Happens” when the image presented drips into the mind’s eye:

“I felt dirty when I saw her/ with the daughter,/ ashamed/ of my hands.”

I feel ashamed, too, when reading this, that feeling inserted into my own life by the quick cut of that one moment “ashamed of my hands”.  That image, the moment, speaks volumes in four words.  This is what poetry can do in the hands of the capable, and Dennison consistently stays at this level throughout the thirty-three poems that make up this chap.

On occasion, and this not often, I found a line here and there, exclusively at the ends of certain poems, where I felt Dennison went one moment too long with the piece.  But this is only noticeable when compared to other works throughout the book.  I’ve been told this is usually the writer being concerned he has not put across what he wanted in the previous lines, so adds the final line or two at the very end of the poem as a last effort to ensure the overall theme.  It’s common, but I did find this to be the case a few times.  The most significant was in the poem “Improvements” where it seems the final two lines, the final stanza, could have been left out and the poem would have stood fine.  I’ll include the final two stanzas here:

“And it wasn’t that I had changed/ but noticed the teacher never/ liked me quite as much/ or ever called on me again/ to read.”

And then:

“She knew I knew/ something.”

By the time I read the final line of this poem, I had already concluded the teacher was aware the narrator knew something.  It may not be the conclusion every reader would reach, but I feel Dennison brought me to that place with a command of craft and that most readers would likely be able to understand, as well.

Throughout the thirty-three poems that make up Waiting for Better I had the very real sense I was in the hands of a talented writer, and at the end of the day, regardless of any points that could be made, this is what we’re all shooting for, the ability to engage a reader and then keep them in the fictive world you have created.  Dennison does this, and does it well.  It’s a chapbook worthy of a read and one that will always call for lively discussion.

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