Review: Eden by Dennis Schmitz Print E-mail

Dennis-Schmitz-1(South Florida Poetry Review. Volume 8, No. 1: Winter 1991)

Surfaces to Keep

When I read any poem by Dennis Schmitz I feel that he achieves my attention with an insight which because I was lost in his language I was unprepared for. Which is another way to say his surface was training me all along how to read more deeply. To illustrate here’s the beginning of Schmitz’s “Instructions for Rowing.”

                   across the reflected sun the skiff cuts

                   should include diagrams

                   of the radius joint of the wrist,

                   a kind of human oarlock.

                   The island in his head the sweated rower looks at


                   is sublime in a way

                   the island one can’t face to row to never is:

                   so deliberately choose a distant


                   mark to go away from—

                   this is the way to go straight


                   to what you can’t face.

Nothing at first reading here is easy to grasp. You have to work at moving backward to move forward. Lines and stanzas, images and rhetoric, are blurred, seldom regulated. Working back in the lines you find yes, to row you need a sort of intuitive guide. Eyes in the back of your head. Recalling further on in the poem an unresolved family suicide, the poet creates more difficult images, continues the troubling syntax. Always more to plow in Schmitz’s surface—it is as fertile, maybe more so, than his depth.

Some poets make their depth more easily approachable, not necessarily more easily fathomed—Whitman’s surface is always lyrical, Frank O’Hara’s spontaneous, William Carlos Williams’ like pond water. Theirs also draw us back in with clear patterns of sound. But Schmitz’s voice is less songful. It is a voice predominantly composed as line, having the quality Robert Creeley has always sought—to make words “speak rather than [have] someone speaking through them.”

A brief detour. Louis Simpson once said that many contemporary poets lack profundity because they possess few themes larger than (or no theme other than) their lost selves. (His themes are the World War Two and the survival of the Jews.) Some fill the gap with language itself as subject, poems that mean via emphasis on the process of each one’s unique making. Language becomes a de facto subject in a poem when the poet’s versification becomes inseparable from the poem’s content. Consider the impact a sentence in the poem “Blue” has with its run-on objects.

When I pull my eye back from the hole,


the things by their gravity stay

the absolutes our family kept

negotiating: against Fran’s temper

We need to reread, pulled not by the tunefulness but by the tension between the lines ending on “stay” and “kept” and the tug toward their objects. This tension the language creates is the meaning: Line and punctuation echoing content, here, the family strain. Such heavily enjambed lines are commonly done by poets nowadays, and Schmitz does it as well as anyone. The power of his verse lies in this syntactic knotting up of words, a twisting, reverberating shape, which, by alternating rhetorical and enjambed lines, brings out a complexity much like the hard‑edged designs in the paintings of Kandinsky.

But Schmitz is by no means a L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet; he retains many traditional forms in his work. He is at heart a narrative writer and an imagist, tending and deepening with deftly juxtaposed pictures an isolated, still world he has rigorously observed. Schmitz’s poems are rich with binocular-like details, which he loves to uncover, to insist are there, to retrain our eye on—a sort of hyperrealism. The tones of the photographic eye are hard, metallic, inspecting. From “Zoo,” for example, we see an unlikely yet perfect image of the kept animal.

                   the greedy mouse a whole week caught in poultry wire

                   goes on growing, one half head,

                   the other half rosy-anus-in-fur-threads

                   the wire opening closed on its middle,

                   it eats in the emu’s pen & defecates


                   in freedom.

Schmitz’s idiosyncrasies give the texture of his poems delightful peculiarity. He uses “&,” never “and.” (He may do this to vitiate the over-relied-on cadences of Old English verse.) On occasion, he makes adjective-forming hyphenated words, as above, or mixes up radically different dictions in a single poem. In “U.S. Considers War with Libya” he says that “water is a linguistic distinction,” calling himself “the Keats / of the paramecium.”

Such exacting images (more yang than yin) also comprise the hard tones of speech—authority, brute direction, a will to know. His poems work aggressively toward their catch, (a number are about fishing), leaving a trail of bright, discarded minutiae, an afterglow of studied objects or moments. At the trail’s end we find Schmitz’s hunted object has as much obscurity as clarity. His poems all involve the process of isolating an impure core.

Again in “Blue” he records his own vertigo while “reroofing” a shed in his yard. Slipping and nearly falling, he is able to “hang on at last only by looking away, / only by relacing with my eye / the garage wall’s clematis against / the down-there.” It is an edge, the seam between acting and reacting, the instantaneous choice, that Schmitz wishes to toy with, to touch, stroke, shake, blur. These are visions I find in experience but rarely in poems.

With creative obscurity as a goal Schmitz is not a prolific poet. There are only 25 poems here, which began appearing in publication as far back as 1984. (This is his fourth book.) Perhaps Schmitz, like James Wright, is the sort of poet who can accomplish only four poems a year. His insistence on craft has not only given us some beautifully descriptive poems; Schmitz’s Eden has also received the di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America for the best book in progress. His efforts are known.

Schmitz discovers fascinating perspectives from the most unusual sources. In “Climbing Sears Tower,” we watch the stuntman Daniel Goodwin ascend “in a reflected Chicago”—the buildings around him, sky and clouds, a TV helicopter that presents live coverage. Then, as if a lens has been overturned, a couple of Chicago neighborhoods appear. The poem winnows down to a local who, watching the climb on TV, dryly looks on as the bartender changes the channel to “the Cubs” and “clears lunch glasses, olive & chorizo / scraps into a basin.” The poet finds a commonality between indifference and the miraculous, reminiscent of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

Perhaps the two best poems are “Driving with One Light” and “Bird-Watching.” These poems teach us that intense observation, the faculty Jung called the active imagination, yield potentially awesome transformational insight, the epiphanic.

Night driving with one light out, Schmitz coaxes from the woods an “animal world that flares momentarily,” and thereby enters “a second world,” one which summons his desire to merge with the unknown. And it happens—an act of brute will. Suddenly it breaks through his windshield and engulfs him. The car crashes and it, something willed out of the darkness, is upon him: “nothing so simple as a feathered self, / nothing so arcane you couldn’t make it out, / least light, in you.” Schmitz does not name it—an animal unconscious perhaps—but he recognizes that acts of unmitigated creation are for him a quest.

In “Bird-Watching” (a Pushcart Prize poem) the poet spies with binoculars at welders dissembling a “WWII / mine-tender.” As he lowers the glasses, he sees on the shore closer to him a dead heron, “peppered with grit, / marshgrass poking / out the bird’s buggy eyeholes.” This “Bird-in-the-volleys-of-lesser-birds” fascinates and terrifies him, and he responds first to the intellectual wound. “Idolatry begins in one’s fear / of being the only thing, saying, for example, / to detritus, let it linger, let even just the feathers / of it stay.” Connected to our need to forget the past, the poet suggests we preserve its waste to remind us that scars vanish too easily.

Schmitz’s main strength as a seer lies in the poems in which he blends animal and human forces (as the two above) and, once accomplished, either bridges the difference or observes the significance of the distinction. Here are the first three stanzas of a remarkable poem. “The Grand Egress"

                   was Barnum’s way to stir

                   believers, usher them out before they gave way

                   facing the wolf-faced boy

                   along the clogged path to the next tent


                   their dimes already gone & the boy growling

                   what could be words.

                   TO THE GRAND EGRESS Barnum’s sign with an arrow

                   said, as though some fresh


                   atrocity, on its haunches, waited.

                   So believers left the boy’s world before grief

                   at the differences between them

                   overcame joy at their likeness.

The poet next tells a story from childhood when he had his brother’s joy “to guide me / past dangers,” a sort of Barnum of daring and protection he still desires. The union of the sideshow’s lure and a child’s reluctant trust is brilliantly rendered.

In challenging us to deliberate over his constructions, Schmitz’s vision can sometimes strain. Poetry should not always be a trial to read: Schmitz’s demands can grow tedious. But he is a poet endowed with skills and intuition that in their particular focus are rare and, at times, breath-taking. To paraphrase Meister Eckhart, Schmitz’s poems tell us that when we truly see the thing itself, we find it too possesses the same looking-to-see eye that we have.