When the Cicadas Return






The New York Postcard Sonnets
by Philip Dacey
Rain Mountain Press, 2007

Phil Dacey's new book — far from the prairie
by DANA YOST for The Marshall Independent

Just before the school year, a new anthology of poems, stories and essays called "Farming Words" was published by Southwest Minnesota State English professors Bill Holm and David Pichaske.

It’s an impressive book, and sales are a fund-raiser for scholarships at SMSU.

The book includes the work of writers who have lived or worked in the area, and others who have visited or lectured here. While that ensures a rural perspective to things, the topics seen through that perspective are often wider — life, death, the changing of our values.

The anthology includes six poems by retired SMSU professor and nationally respected poet Phil Dacey, a man who taught here for many years but did not grow up on the prairie.

Dacey didn’t live through the Depression on the farm or go to country school. He was born in New York City, raised in St. Louis and went through the prestigious University of Iowa writing program.

Reflecting that, his poems in “Farming Words,” aren’t necessarily taken from a gravel road or backyard fence. They are, instead, straight from the Dacey voice: Not dust-coated, but sharp, ironic and, in one case, a powerful piece built around the late poet Thomas McGrath. The themes are, indeed, big: Sex, death and war.

Place isn't always as important, as often, I think, in Dacey's case as is the observation and the phrase.

However, Dacey has now come out with his own new book of new poems and, this time, place plays a pretty big part. Since retiring from SMSU in 2004, he has lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and he is writing about the experience.

His book is called "The New York Postcard Sonnets." It arrived this week at Bound to Read in the Marshall mall.

The book is a collection of scenes, sounds and reactions to the bustle of New York City. And, true to the title, it is often written in postcard style — the kind of short descriptions and incidents you might write back to your family.

Of course, with Dacey's pen, it's not merely a jotted note. It explodes.

Dacey's ear is right on much of the time, and so is his eye. Some of the poems are lists of things he's heard and seen during a given day or week, woven for theme and impact.

Out running one day, Dacey glides by a pair of white lace panties and it stirs his imagination. He observes news stand dealers, old folks with canes, goes to the Irish Hunger Memorial and caps that visit by glimpsing a headline, ironically, that reads "'102 Children Abused by Dublin Priests.' A sorry amen."

Some pieces recapture moving events he's attended. Some are linked to literature — New York, after all, was home to Walt Whitman. In SMSU's English department, the lounge is named the Whitman Room. You used to have to walk through it to get to Dacey's office.

Dacey writes that Manhattan is a place unto itself, likening it at one point to a prison — isolated, a literal island.

Yet, just as the prairie shapes who we are, location shapes New Yorkers.

"Millions of strangers, yet a family feeling, or tribal — we're in this together," he writes.

Or, "My one-year New York anniversary. How sum it up? I'm still on honeymoon. Midwesterner, I came here not to be a New Yorker, but just learn how to cope like one.

"I've succeeded too well, become the typical parochial resident: each neighborhood's a small city, self-sufficient, and I stay whole weeks at a time in mine, happily burrowed."

Dacey seems to find dogs and dog walkers and pianos everywhere in New York.

Pianos turn up where you'd expect them — his frequent visits to nearby Juilliard — and where you don't, the U.N.

He writes that his greatest fear is stepping on one of the many small dogs that are always under foot, and rejoices that, when one finally is stepped on, it's by someone else, not him. He didn't want the owner's wrath.

You can blast through the book quickly, because of the language and style.

Dacey fills it with short bursts of dialogue or description, as if creating captions for pictures of New York scenes. But you want to go back, and savor a certain twist or let yourself stand in his shoes as if you were looking at the city yourself. And here, his outsider’s view is significant: Many of his descriptions take what would be every-day things to New Yorkers and make them the observed stuff of poetry.

Technique, point of view. Yes. But some of the writing is just flat-out beautiful. These lines about Juilliard: "Maybe I miss my students. Or it's just plain fun to watch so many Asian females first bow and sit as if they were delicate porcelain, then turn into terrors and rip the keys off the piano."

There are times when he can't help but thinking of the Midwest. In the record-setting blizzard of 2006, New Yorkers were at a standstill, and Dacey wishes for a bunch of Minnesota drivers to clear the traffic.

Reviewers have called the book an ode or valentine to New York, perhaps as if it's a soft tribute. It's not.

It's Dacey's sharp eyes scouring a new subject, and, again, while he certainly spends time on the details of the scenery — the sunset at a Shakespeare in the Park performance in Central Park — it's the language itself and the universal sense of standing, breathing, walking next to another human, that are strongest.

A decade or so ago, Dacey showed me a poem he wrote about the way the Irish Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney writes. Dacey invented a verb in that poem, saying Heaney's words "shrapneled," into your mind.

I've already used the word explode to describe Dacey's new poems. They rattle with the pace of Manhattan, but also with the pace of Dacey's ever-observing mind.

Yet, I think his best poem in the book is neither fast nor full of captions.

It's a postcard addressed to his mother, who gave birth to him in New York. There is the sorrow of missing someone in this poem, and Dacey slows down to let you absorb that sadness and that loss.

"If you were here with me today I would show you my neighborhood, the places I like to go, holding your hand to steady you all the while we walk along my streets for you'd be smaller than I am now as I was smaller than you were then. I'm thinking this postcard is a prayer. Amen."

The neighborhood, in this case, is the Upper West Side. But I'm pretty sure you could put that poem in "Farming Words," as easily as you could in Dacey's own new book. As long as you can feel, the ache of loss is real no matter where you are when it hits.








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