Reviewed by: Ed Bennett
This is the third book of poems by Bruce Dethlefsen that I have had the pleasure to review. Usually, after reading multiple books by the same poet, a reader should find a pattern to the work, something unique to the poetry that should be identifiable. In Bruce Dethlefsen’s case, one finds humor and passion in the work but this is hardly unique to one poet. To complicate matters, his mastery of poetic forms is varied. So how does one read this kind of a poet? I think the best suggestion is not to characterize the poetry – just enjoy it, no matter what the form. It’s like watching a great pitcher dominate the mound during a ball game. Yes, a fast ball, a curve, a slider may be expected, but every once in a while there is a knuckle ball resulting in a perfect strike where the batter can only watch it sail over the plate. Small Talk is Bruce Dethlefsen’s knuckle ball and it is, as Mel Allen used to say “a real smoker”. The poems have the usual playfulness found in his other work but the poems are short and to the point. One can feel them resonate with the intellect almost like the snap in a catcher’s glove for a called strike.
The title of the book reflects the poems within - short, one of them only three words, covering topics ranging from global warming to osculation. The diminutiveness of both poem and line allow him to give full rein to his emotions, especially his humor. In “Shakespearean Menses”, he muses:
The juxtaposition of modern idiom (“oh great”) with the Shakespearean “but soft” from Romeo and Juliet sets up the punch line (“I’m aleak) perfectly. He gives free reign to his playfulness with an untitled poem in Haiku form (though something other than a Haiku in sentiment):
“june full moon rises
Hardly a contemplation of Nature’s tranquility with a full moon as a portent of bad poetry. It is difficult to write an original love poem though poets will always try. One wonders whether this is a statement of fact or a warning or, more likely, a masterful poet making light of his art. Of course, there are love poems throughout the book with his usual ability to create an image that quietly remains, like an echo within the reader’s perception. In “Three-Quarter Time”, a simple waltz becomes:
“I dance with you
we change the shape
The first two lines are a declaration, a macho sounding “because I can” that deflates as soon as we read the next word. The narrator is willing to admit his flaw, setting the scene for the next verse paragraph where the focus changes to “we”. Changing the shape of space is more than just drawing a partner closer, there is an unspoken need to dance, to embrace, to change time and space. Definitely, this is not one of the “thousand lousy poems alluded to earlier.
Small Talk is not just humor. In other reviews, I’ve pointed out that Bruce Dethlefsen is an accomplished Imagist, having the same ability to create an image with few words, much like William Carlos Williams. In another untitled poem, he writes:
“how smooth the surface
This has the feel of an early Williams poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and like Williams, he creates a portrait where the word “smooth” takes on a deeper meaning when placed against “lost”. The detail of his observation strengthens the scene in our minds creating silence rather than an epiphany. Yet another example of Dethlefsen’s eye for detail is found in “Hillview Care Center”.
“a chickadee needs
Again a Haiku in form with a strong American idiom. On the surface, the poem is a statement about how fast a bird can eat a seed. In this case, however, the title opens the poem into a deeper meaning. One can see a patient at the Care Center passing the interminable hours watching the chickadee, timing it, timing it again, ad infinitum. A simple measurement of time takes on a sadness from this perspective.
Small Talk has all of the depth and all of the beauty one comes to expect from Bruce Dethlefsen’s poetry. The unique quality of this particular book is the playfulness with words and ideas in what for other poets would be the restrictiveness of short poems. The tenor of each of these poems is summed up best in “Catch and Release”:
“poets take the world
There are so many well-written poems in this book that I am tempted to make examples of all of them. Unfortunately, my commentary would detract from the unity and cohesiveness of the work. Small Talk is a book of profound ideas distilled to their essence and presented with Bruce Dethlefsen’s usual acuity. They are short works, short as the distance between the mound and the plate. My suggestion is to pick up a copy and join the rest of us in the grandstand where a perfect game of words and images is played as the home team cheers.