Friday, December 23, 2011

Drew Blanchard, Winter Dogs

I’ve been meaning to write something about Drew Blanchard’s collection Winter Dogs (Salmon Poetry, 2011). I bought this book at Salmon’s off-site AWP reading in D.C. earlier this year, and now that the year is almost over it seems high time to respond. I like Blanchard’s writing; it’s strong. Take a look at “Not Whiskey” (the first poem of any collection always deserves special attention) which nicely sets things up, both in terms of Blanchard’s ethos and his style: the setting is the West or Midwest of America, because there are bison. But the bison are symbols; they become other things, parts of the landscape (“an electric fence”), other animals (“a fox”), abstractions in the speaker’s mind (“a question about crossing the street”), etc. Then they appear elsewhere, in a bar, “witness a son/ bankrupt” there (the “son” must also be the speaker), and suddenly they are not a number of other things (“box knives,” “a soiled sheet,” etc., and finally “not whiskey, not a time-clock”). Why are they some things and not others? It seems arbitrary, but simply to say there are things present and there are absences, and there is a mind, in a bar, drinking whiskey, trying to make sense of it (sometimes whiskey can help in this, sometimes maybe not). Yet this is not Blanchard saying “oh poor me, drunk in a bar” — this is not confessional realism — this is a speaker in a poem working things out through poetry. The bison, again, are symbols, perhaps images (“The bison, alone again in wandering”), rendered in language that is musical, redolent with soundplay, alliteration. This poem is short, and it’s a subtle one, but it’s a perfect statement of Blanchard’s poetics.

Throughout the collection, similar strategies are deployed. Often, what seems initially like a simple first-person or third-person narrative is transmuted into real poetry. Take “Winter Dogs” (the title poem too is of obvious importance), set in the Mayakovskaya stop of the Moscow metro system. There are (presumably) real-life events rendered here — a old woman with five dogs is begging change, there is a disturbance, and a man throws a bottle at her, allowing “two dogs/ [to break] free into the gray night.” The reader pities for the old woman (who is not unlike one of William Carlos Williams’s old women), and the dogs, but I think there are bigger issues at stake. Through the particulars, the universal. Extending the poem outward, we think also about the harsh economic and political situation in Russia, and, even wider still, how we all struggle in the world. Given that the setting is a metro station named after a poet, the ending must take on a deeper significance. What does it mean that these dogs have broken free? Why only two and not the rest? In terror, they have escaped the tie of their leashes but also of certainty. They have their freedom, but we all know what happens to us in the end.

“Mine Own Baudelaire” employs humor to undercut the “grand” poetic musings the reader may have expected from the title. Exploring the theme of the double, someone who looks just like oneself somewhere else in the world, Blanchard wishes for his to be a Baudelaire figure. Instead, in line at the post office, he actually does see his double (and so do the other customers), a criminal on a ‘Wanted’ poster, the reward for whose capture, incidentally, “was larger than my gross/ income for the entire nineteen-nineties.” Many other poems here (good poems) similarly vacillate between the serious and the vaudevillian. “Liddy’s Prayer Card” is a tribute to the late Irish poet James Liddy (who we have in common as a friend) (and for that matter with whom we also share a publisher); it is a rendering of an actual prayer card that Liddy had changed around (a sort of erasure-and-addition poem), crossing out certain words and writing in other ones to create a new, dirty, but affirming prayer to life. Such a balance of “deep” poetic themes, humor, and religious ritual might come in part from Liddy, but, in this first collection, Blanchard sets out his own stall. Winter Dogs is American, descriptive, imagistic, narrative yet surreal, big yet in love with particularity, and well worth the read.