How many contemporary Canadian poets can I name? Not many, which makes me feel stupid, especially since the books I have read by Canadian writers are so good. Mark Dunn is one of those writers. He’s also an accomplished singer-songwriter whose CDs I’ve listened to with great pleasure.
In his second book, Fancy Clapping, he takes on the world, a cosmic joke filled with heartache, nonsense, and wonder. In the very last poem of the book, “The Joke,” the speaker tells us with matter-of-fact authority:
The world doesn’t just invent itself:
it needs some coaching, a poke,
to remind it that invention
has always been necessary.
And there are more subtle necessities,
like jellyfish and unicorns.
Things the earth could not
think up on its own and so
thought us up.
Despite the rampant insanity here on planet earth, Dunn insists on the joy of discovery and invention; he insists on finding or making some form of light in darkness so that meaning can be had, and had in the specific, whether it’s the edge of a leaf that “resembles a bat wing,” “cannabinoids,” or “mushroom slices” that “shrink under the heat” as his wife makes an omelet.
Along with the poet’s ability to invent and to see how we’re invented by the specifics which surround us, Fancy Clapping also explores eternal questions about war, religion, love, sex, and death. What Dunn wants to say, what he succeeds in saying, is that the noise we make, the “fancy clapping” we perform in our heads and in the world to distract us from our lives, prevents us from seeing the wild beauty of the ordinary.
The ability to see such beauty, and to record it in writing, may be because the poet-speaker imagines in “Maps to the Underworld” that he’s been “welcomed to the cave” where others have been and now has the power to see. Such power, such vision thus allows him to say something about “Modern Religion in New York City” where people stand in front of The Dakota worshipping the place where “Lennon stood and fell,” or in another poem, “I Can Drive if You Like,” to describe how “it is strange at night” off a highway somewhere in Michigan where a clerk at a gas station “hears ghost music / from across a lake.”
As discovery and invention for Dunn are honed from paying attention to the specific, to the particular, memory, hidden and revealed, voluntary and involuntary, also exerts its power. Memory in these poems shadows invention, acts as its double. The strongest example of this tension appears in “A Kind of Remembrance” where the speaker recalls an arrowhead his grandfather found while digging in his garden and brought to the dinner table when the speaker was just a boy. Looking back now, the speaker tells us that the arrowhead
…may have helped
to fell a deer that fed a family.
It may have missed altogether;
lost in the woods until time covered it—
leaves, moss, the decaying forest covered it.
What is unearthed or comes back to the surface? What remains buried? Dunn reveals some of these mysteries in this challenging and tender new book.