Monday, February 16, 2009

Daniel Anderson's Drunk in Sunlight

Daniel Anderson's collection Drunk in Sunlight is a compelling blend of the formal and the colloquial, impulses that often seem to be in tension in the world of contemporary poetry. Anderson's poems depend heavily on the iambic line, and rhyme is usually present as well, though only rarely in predictable patterns. The poem below is a good example of these traits and also illustrates the ways in which Anderson relishes exploring how moments of heightened tension can be illuminated through the quotidian.

Elegy for the Dying Dog

Tomorrow he will die.
For now, though, see him drowsing in the shade.
A cardinal cracks the red whip of its flight.
Frail butterflies--the metalmark,
The spicebush swallowtail--are lobbed
Like painted tissue on the air.
The wind, as it might carve on fields of wheat,
Combs over his black coat. I've set him there
As water irises prepare
Their gold unfolding in the rain-fresh pond.
Last meal: steamed rice. Grilled strips of steak.
Last lazy afternoon. Last hour
To watch the clouds drift like meringues,
To watch them blended into tones of peach
Then deepen to the dusky tints of plums.
One last command to heed or disobey,
But it's not me who's calling Virgil now,
It's death who's calling, calling, calling,
And he comes.

The poem arrests the moment, speaker watching dog as his last afternoon unfolds. Perhaps my use of the word "colloquial" earlier is a bit imprecise, because there is a kind of distance achieved in Anderson's poems, partly by the slightly elevated diction, but also through the subtle self-effacement of his speakers. As often as not, the first-person speaker is plural, but even when when an "I" is present the experiences the poems record are rendered with gravity and the kind of tenderness reserved for things put down after much reflection. This reserve sometimes puts me in mind of some of Donald Justice's poems, though it must be said that "Daniel Anderson" is usually more obviously present in the work than Justice is in his.

And always in the background is the music of the varied syntax and the effortless manipulation of the metrical pattern, the trimeter line with which "Elegy for the Dying Dog" opens signalling the lack of sentiment, the variations of the tetrameter and pentameter in the heart of the poem, and the truncation of the dimeter last line to furnish a layer of inference.
The occasional rhyme, too, is part of the accompaniment, but rarely if ever does it intrude. And the sheer gorgeousness of the imagery and figurative language here--the "meringues" of clouds and the "painted tissue" of the butterflies--pulls me back into the poem over and over.

Drunk in Sunlight is Anderson's second book. His first, January Rain, is on my reading list.

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