December Read of the Month: “Like Headlines,” by Nancy Dillingham

Nancy Dillingham

Reviewed by Fred Chappell

Ezra Pound, that cranky ringmaster of twentieth century American poetry, offered this definition:  “Poetry is news that stays news.”  His point, that strong poetry is always important, fresh, and urgent, would be soberly received by many an earnest striver in the art, even those who had never heard of Pound.  Some poets had always pushed onward to take the further step of distilling their news to forms that almost resemble headlines, composing slender verses to partially reveal, or hint at, narratives of mysterious complexity.  Sometimes the brief poems served as “hook” headlines that make readers desirous to know more or to try to construct narratives into which such sharp revelations can fit.

Emily Dickinson, whom Nancy Dillingham alludes to in several of her pieces, furnishes us with numerous “headline” poems of bright impact:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Ancient Chinese poets like Wang Wei, Han Yu, Li He and others specialized in condensing whole chronicles of joy, sadness, and loneliness into the minimum of lines.  Here is Li Bai (701-762), “Brooding in the Still Night”:

Bright moonlight before my bed
At first I think the floor is all frost.
I gaze up at the mountain moon,
Then drop my head in a dream of home.

These two poets are very different from each other and Nancy Dillingham is different from both.  But when I read the lines of Li Bai, Dillingham’s “Dreamscape” advances readily to mind:

Swimming in silver
I rise
my life
a skin I have shed

Eyes glittering
graceful as a snake
I stir my starry skies
and breathe like Eve

onto my lover’s bed

I count only thirty-two words needed to imply a tumultuous novel of love, passion, temptation, possible betrayal, fresh resolve, and fateful consequence.  I feel certain that if these nine lines were fleshed out in prose to novel length, the dense five hundred pages would strike me with much less impact.

It is by fine distillation that we gather our most powerful spirits.

Perhaps our poet’s New and Selected volume may be read as distilled autobiography and in a large sense this is true of Like Headlines.  Yet Dillingham has taken delightful pains to open out autobiography to include social, historical, and artistic concerns.  Only the section titled “Our House” approaches autobiographical material in fairly straightforward manner.  Other sections address the positions of women in society, the complexities of childhood, love and marriage, and social protest.  The final section, “When the Deal Goes Down,” reminds us wryly, tenderly, and sorrowfully that mortality is a temporary condition, as the faithful woman who comes to tend graves demonstrates with her annual ritual.  “She will brush honeysuckle hair/from ancient faces/pluck star grass from their eyes.” (“Tending the Graves”)  Upon reading these three lines I had to take three deep breaths to steady myself, startled to find in the imagery a vivid past, present, and future displayed in this act of solitary devotion.

It is a function of rituals such as grave-tending to convey a sense of hushed timelessness.  Consider, for example, how the noisiness of a large family dinner is stilled as soon as one of the elders is called to say grace.  The silence of a very small assembly can seem vast.  Even the most casual incidents of our lives adopt the posture of ritual when we study them as images.  In “Woman on the Porch” the seated figure is immersed in a private timelessness; she is in the present moment but not of it; the apartness she embodies makes her appear as much a hallowed icon as a human figure.  A memory removes her from our time-frame so thoroughly that she is no longer conscious of it, “so far back//into the black void/she can no longer/hear the birds sing.”

“Lighting the fire” might almost be regarded as a companion piece to “Woman on the Porch.”  Again, a lone figure is removed from present time by force of memory.  The sight of crushed flowers in a field brings back to her memories not only of youthful ardor but of the pains resulting from such passion.  When she returns to her lonely cabin, she sets fire to those memories.  Her driving passion now is to try to forget:

Alone in her cabin
she folds her memories
in the lockbox of her brain

strikes a match
lights the fire
watches it burn

The final stanza of three lines, each containing three words, sounds out a determined, stern resolution.  She wills herself to forget.  But the “lockbox” is metaphorical, as are the match and the cleansing fire.  When next she opens that lockbox she must strike another useless match.  Barring their loss to dementia, the documents of grievous memory are impervious to destruction.

Now and again our poet seems to try on the good old Imagist mode, catching the essence of a moment with the eyes of an artful photographer, presenting a picture that hints of no past history and implies no future destiny.  “Park Swing” is a poem that Pound as Imagist might envy:

Little girls
with horizontal hair
and umbrella dresses
punch holes in the sky

Here is a frozen instant that is no more than it is.  —Wait now. . .  Little girls punching holes in the sky?  Perhaps they will grow up to become Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sylvia Plath, or Amelia Earhart.  Their losses have made our sky emptier and Dillingham has opened this collection with poems about them.  Though offering an array of apparently different subjects, Like Headlines is unified in unobvious but powerful ways.  There is probably no poem included that does not in some manner of extension touch upon most of the other poems.

A chosen moment never passes into oblivion, even if soundless, as when the father trims his young daughter’s hair, in “Jole Blon”:

Silences piling up
like shorn locks

on the floor
of the high front porch

“Silences piling up” is a phrase descriptive of many another Dillingham poem.  We might compare “Temptation,” “Old Age Penchant,” “End Game,” “Omen,” “Shivaree,” and further instances of often ominous portent in which we wait both for the future to happen and for the past to subside.

In fact, I think Silences Piling Up would make a good title for the next collection by Nancy Dillingham.  I anticipate eagerly that signal event.  You may picture me holding my breath.  Meanwhile here is Like Headlines to keep me harmonious company.

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