Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]

A Decent Reed
By Bruce Dethlefsen
Tamafyhr Mountain Press, 1998

The Perfect Day
By Andrea Potos
Parallel Press, 1998

Reviewed by Matt Welter

I sit where I stood
collapse where I sat
[From "Sleeping After Trout Fishing"]

I enjoy it when I see a poet emerge. A few years ago I read these lines in an issue of Hodge Podge Press. I swooned. I put a mark near the author's easy to lisp name. A year later I was going through a list of marked names and saw that Dethlefsen kept emerging. His poetic voice and well thought out delivery touched me like fresh sheets on a clothesline. A few months later I was at a poetry reading and when the open mike announcer properly pronounced Mr. Dethlefsen's name correctly, I was awakened with deer ears fully alert. His voice was as honest as his written word and I was even more amazed when six months later I got to work with him at the Spiritual Headwaters of the Universe: the Mid-State Poetry Towers (home of the Allen Ginsberg memorial chair). Between five and seven of us guys were thoroughly impressed with our fellow poet and urged and urged him to publish a chapbook.

A Decent Reed is his long-awaited collection. It is full of humor (both gentle and dark). From the nuances of men-think women-feel to comparing his Catholic teacher to the Wicked Witch of the East (remember what happens to her -- thump!) to rewording the Constitution to read like a composting guide, Dethlefsen is a stitch. His inner pieces, like "Crows Mate for Death" and "Rotmantel," give us images that make us twinge with paranoia and angst. His light, uplifting verses, like "Sewing Clouds" and "On the Sill," bring us to an epiphany. In these later poems, Dethlefsen shows his finest art. It is one thing to get the reader to laugh, it is another write in a way that makes the reader want to learn to write like that. His poems are a great read and they teach us how to write.

But probably the hardest thing to pin down is how humble and subtle these poems are. Dethlefsen's work melts within you as easily as butter mints. He seems to go not for the in-your-face approach, but more of the "Hi, I'm your secret friend who just woke you up in the middle of the night and I just wanted to show you something." A little smile in the corner of his mouth as he knowingly begins to say something like,

flagella move so fast
they think that hummingbirds are dead
know that we are dead

* * *

One of the things that makes Andrea Potos' The Perfect Day so perfect is its editing. Poems are paired off in provocative ways that make you think about other poems. Side by side sit the poems "Child" and "Grandmother, In the Dream." In the first poem, Potos compares hearing the heart of her unborn child, to finding a shell on the beach and hearing "the will of the ocean." In the second poem, her grandmother becomes "smaller and smaller faster and faster/ as if whirling back to the womb" In the former poem, the hope of her unborn child becomes as vast as the ocean. In the latter, she loses her grandmother in the infinity of the cosmos. Another example of good editing is that first and last poems in the book come full circle. The first poem is her memory of a field trip to the Wonderbread plant. She and her classmates work the fresh hot bread into globes, forming worlds of their own. In the last poem in the book, Potos is making dough, searching for her grandmother, until her grandmother's voice tells her to use her hands and "Touch the shapes that will make your life." The two poems give energy to one another, magnetically opposing and attracting, both enlarging and diminishing one another.

When I first read this book, Potos' style reminded me of the work of Laurel Mills. Potos used metaphor, comparing her belly to a diving rod during pregnancy, much like Mills compared a gull to her diving rod for finding the landscape she was drawn to. Potos' relationship with three generations of her family was as tightly bound as Mills' relationship with lovers and family in her last book, I Sing Back. Later, Potos book reminded me of Jean Ferraca's Crossing the Great Divide. Her ekphrasis "Before" tells the story of an old family picture, much like some of Ferraca's work. However, Potos does not stretch for the academic comparisons. Instead, she takes a braver route, taking herself out of the picture. In the end, I found that Potos' work was much like Neruda's. The imagery at first seems light, but is actually so soulful it becomes lighter and lighter, until you feel yourself rising from its inspiration. In her poem "Autumn Baby Shower" she includes images like, "floating sherbet islands," "raspberries wrapped in fresh cream," "satin in every rainbow." These images at first hit me as syrupy until I hit "pots brimming with amber honey" and the shape struck me: rounded, mounded, so sweet it's ready to explode.

This book is alive as yeast, warm as baking bread. It is a book that rises and rises and when it comes to the end, it makes you want to start all over again, working it with your hands, molding it in your mind. Andrea Potos' long awaited for chapbook is sensual as sweat between a woman's breasts. If it could be summarized in a color it would be that of the warm nightlight that soothes you to sleep. If there were instructions on how to read this book, they are in Potos' poem, "The Well":
You must bend yourself over slowly
to see over the edge,
let the rope unravel
from the tight spool of your heart.
Like seams gently torn open,
let your hands part the dark water.



Bruce Dethlefsen's A Decent Reed is available from Tamafyhr Mountain Press, 422 Lawrence St., Westfield, WI 53694 for $5 plus $1 postage. Make checks payable to the author. Andrea Potos' The Perfect Day is available from Parallel Press, Memorial Library, 728 State St., Madison, WI 53706 for $10 plus $3 postage and handling.


Matt Welter gives out the prestigious Pippistrelle Best of the Small Press Award each year on Feb. 2. He will have two chapbooks of poetry out in 2000: Shadows of a Cloud (Puddinghouse Press) and Our Sainted Lady Esther (Parallel Press). He lives in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press