Carl Dennis, Two Poems

I find him to be killer. Absolutely killer. The first one reminds me of what I was going through when I wrote this post – the post that generated, hands down, the meanest email I have ever received (guess the douche missed the point, huh?), and it makes me think, yet again, that that, at their best, is what poets can give us: words and context and imagery to contain and express our deepest longings and fears, or even just our experience of everyday life. I read a poem like that and think, “Yes … yes … God, I know that …” Not that poetry should be all about reflecting YOU, and validating YOU … that would be a very provincial poetry indeed, but once in a while you come across a poem that nails it, something that you spent about 1,000 words on your blog trying to describe … and he does it in seven stanzas. With economy and heartbreaking precision.

In the Coffee Shop by Carl Dennis

The big smile the waitress gives you
May be a true expression of her opinion
Or may be her way to atone for glowering
A moment ago at a customer who slurped his coffee
Just the way her cynical second husband slurped his.

Think of the meager tip you left the taxi driver
After the trip from the airport, how it didn’t express
Your judgment about his service but about the snow
That left you feeling the earth a tundra
Only the frugal few could hope to cross.

Maybe it’s best to look for fairness
Not in any particular unbiased judgment
But in a history of mistakes that balance out,
To find an equivalent for the pooling of tips
Practiced by the staff of the coffee shop,
Adding them up and dividing, the same to each.

As for the chilly fish eye the busboy gave you
When told to clear the window table you wanted,
It may have been less a comment on you
Than on his parents, their dismissing the many favors
He does for them as skimpy installments
On a debt too massive to be paid off.

And what about favors you haven’t earned?
The blonde who’s passing the window now
Without so much as a glance in your direction
Might be trying to focus her mind on her performance
So you, or someone like you, will be pleased to watch
As she crosses the square in her leather snow boots
And tunic of red velvet, fur-trimmed.

What have you done for her that she should turn
The stones of the public buildings
Into a backdrop, a crosswalk into a stage floor,
A table in a no-frills coffee shop
Into a private box near the orchestra?

Yesterday she may have murmured against the fate
That keeps her stuck in the provinces.
But today she atones with her wish to please
As she dispenses with footlights and spotlights,
With a curtain call at the end, with encores.
No way to thank her but with attention
Now as she nears the steps of the courthouse
And begins her unhurried exit into the crowd.

The God Who Loves You by Carl Dennis

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week—
Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you’re living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you’re used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.

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14 Responses to Carl Dennis, Two Poems

  1. Dave E. says:

    I love the first. I get that one completely, at least I think so. The second I’ll have to study a little more. My initial reaction was negative, maybe because it strikes too close to home right now. I reread it and now it seems gentler than my first take on it. I’ll have to think about it.

  2. red says:

    Dave E. – I think the second poem IS harsh – and that its harshness (I would call it its unblinking stare) is its strength. There is a gentleness there too but it is a terrible gentleness, full of sorrow and disappointment.

    That poem flays me. I turn to it whenever I feel dogged by especially persistent what ifs or lost chances, which is all the time these days.

  3. macpea says:

    ‘the god who loves you’ is filled with ideas that huant me. it unravels me in places i didn’t expect. and while it turns my childhood theology on its head, it also comforts me at some level with reminders of what is humanly possible. i will re-read this poem many times.

  4. Desirae says:

    That second one has knocked me down. It’s taken the idea of a loving God to its logical conclusion – and how terrible it would be, how painful to have the all-seeing eye of God. I’ve never seen anything like that. Heartbreaking in the best way.

  5. Dave E. says:

    I’m pondering what ifs a lot these days also. I could drive myself right into the ground if would I allow it. If I read that second poem literally I reject the premise, I think. But then maybe I’m missing a major point or two. It wouldn’t be the first time.

  6. red says:

    Whether or not you reject the premise expressed in the poem is irrelevant (or should be) to whether or not it’s a “good” poem. You said your response to it was negative. Is that because you reject the premise or you don’t like the language?

    Personally, I reject the premise of “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath (or let’s just say I worry for anyone who holds her world view), and I think imagining yourself as she does as a death-loving goddess is probably not the best way to go thru life – but I still think it’s a powerful poem, and fearless in its imagery and rage. Also, who cares if I “agree” with her? I’m reading HER worldview now, not mine.

    There was an interesting piece about Zoe Heller in the Sunday Times book review and there were book-club complaints that people couldn’t “relate” to her characters – and her response was basically, “I don’t give a shit if you can ‘relate’ or not.”

    I wanted to cheer.

    There’s a time and a place to “relate” and there’s also a time and a place where it doesn’t matter if you relate or not.

    My two cents.

    I think your original observation – that it is a harsh poem – was right on the money.

  7. Dave E. says:

    Sheila-Thanks for helping me out here, and for your patience. Yes, that’s it exactly. The language itself is compelling, it’s the message I reject, at least as I’m interpreting it. But looking at it beyond whether I relate or not, yes, it’s a “good” poem.

  8. red says:

    Dave – it certainly is something to think about.

  9. Cousin Mike says:

    Walloped. Ugh.

    Books on my floor, books in boxes, on shelves, on desks and nightstands and tables, books in places unintended for books, books that could not be read even if I went to prison for the next three years. Yet to Amazon I go, 1-clicking my way to some Carl Dennis books.

    The second poem I think is saying, in a sense, “Wake up! You have life and family and friends and every day you sit and wonder “What if?” you are squandering your remaining moments. “What if” will always trump “what is.” Especially if you are wanting to look for some thing you are not digging about your life. The God who loves you, in the form of Carl Dennis’s pen, is in a sense, saying “Love your life! Now.” “It’s going to end sooner than you think, so write that friend, and talk about life.”

  10. red says:

    Hi Mike! Are you on an airplane right now? hahahaha

    Yes, and it might not be the life you should have had … and maybe God (or a father figure … which is what gets me about the poem) is disappointed FOR you … but that’s the way it goes. Get busy living.

  11. Cousin Mike says:

    I only post from planes now. That’s what happens when a ticket on VA to Boston is only 240.

  12. Dave E. says:

    I think I was hasty when I wrote “it’s the message I reject”. If the ultimate message is to not dwell too much on past choices and get on with life, then I embrace that. Maybe what I reject is the path he skillfully, if harshly, goes down to get us there. That’s the part that doesn’t work for me personally in its premise, but obviously everyone has their own take. Aspects of that part could be a long and intense discussion by themselves, and have been for centuries.

  13. Lucy B says:

    “A life thirty points above the life you’re living
    On any scale of satisfaction…”

    Oh, man. I love that you have no reference point for the scale but, wow, you really know that 30 points is a lot.

    I think that this poem speaks to the same ‘doing your best’ feeling that you were writing about before, Sheila. None of us knows what other lives we could be living; none of us actually knows, although we might suspect. All we can do is do our best in the one life that we are living.

    Having said that, this poem brought me to tears – recently I’ve been really struggling with a feeling of having carelessly treated and altogether missed important opportunities in my own life, and the sinking kind of desperation that this faceless fear brings with it.

    I think these feelings can have a positive effect though: in the happiest outcome they could push you to create joy for yourself in a way that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Personally though, I’m still trying to find a moderate path between using the fear to drive myself forward, and being frozen still by the magnitude of what could have been.

    Thanks for the heads up on Mr Dennis!

    (Oh, and Cousin Mike, I just knocked over a precariously stacked pile of unread, imploring books on the floor next to my desk.)

  14. red says:

    “imploring books” – ha!!!! I know – they do implore you to read them, don’t you?

    This conversation is reminding me of something a director of mine in college would say to us when things weren’t going well, or when one actor was doing a particularly bad job, or whatever – he would say, “It may not be the show you WANT, but it’s the show you GOT.” It was his way of saying – let the fantasy in your mind go, and deal with the reality of the given moment.

    So while it may sound bitter, there is something in that second poem of “It may not be the life you WANT, but it’s the life you GOT.” I know I relate to that – those “what ifs” can drown you … but let the fantasy in your mind go, and deal with the reality of the given moment. And also try to enjoy it. Be a good friend, open up, stay connected …

    Not easy.

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