We Have Met the Maelstrom, and It Is Us: Dean Rader’s Self-Portrait as a Wikipedia Entry

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Dean Rader has a gift for picking up shards after damage, and placing them back into our wounded territory. After he won the 2010 T. S. Eliot prize for Works and Days, readers who don’t feed at the poetry trough took enough note that his 2014 chapbook, Landscape, Portrait, Figure, Form was named one of the Best Poetry Books of the Year by Barnes and Noble. I love trajectories like this. It could be part of the boost that led Rader to nod to Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, when Rader called his latest book Self-Portrait as a Wikipedia Entry. It’s a weighty conceit carried off, because each composition is so strong and fine.

I want you to know that this is not the end.

 

I want you to know that when those memories

drop down, my umbrella opens.

This is from “Apocryphal Self-Portrait” in the 2014 volume, and it leads you toward wherever the next mystery ride might go. Umbrellas are flimsy shelters from the maelstrom, and Rader keeps going because he can’t stop. In other words, we have met the maelstrom, and it is us.

If silence is bitter, change yourself into song.

 

O listener, I think of you alone there

on the cliff’s edge of your daily duties,

 

waiting, the way saints wait, for the

falling to cease and the fire to rise,

 

when the tiniest note, the loveliest letter

from this world finally arrives.

Hold your breath. This is in ‘’Self Portrait with Contemplation,’’ in the first section of the new book, so he’s only just begun. He’s come to a tremor-edged peace with his associations, and also with his scholarship, which is not surprising for a tenured professor. Rader teaches at the University of San Francisco, in a city we all know is so blue that some residents think Bernie Sanders is purple. But Rader was born in the big red Central Valley of California, and grew up in Oklahoma. He’s well-traveled and he knows the complicated nuances of home.

Take off

_____your dress of flame: the whole

world is raining.

 

______We can say

we are more than a trickle

of sun, but what, really,

do we want of surrender

________________but supplication?

 

________Our lives

are language, our desires

apophatic but not in that

order.

 

_______We want what

language won’t do, and we

ask only what we

are prepared to live.

This is from ‘’American Self-Portrait III; Or What The Poet Thinks Instead of War,’’ and ‘apophatic’ is one of those plummy words that are above the grade level of Microsoft. It’s a trick of blatantly slippery rhetoric that says no while saying yes. I shall not tell you that I think there is a monster in the White House, is my shamelessly easy example. What we have with Rader are declarative dances that explode and implode at the same time—which makes off-the-page experience seem bearable and unbearable. It’s very Beckett, and it works because this is 2017, and it works tragically because it should hold up for years to come.

(Gosh. I keep breaking the vow I made before opening my laptop. I was not going to say anything about Rader that suggests where he might be headed in the widening gyre of the canon. My desire for his particular arrangements keeps making the better of me, and I’m good with that. So back to the rain.)

What, exactly, is the whole world raining, and how would it translate into Japanese, Korean, Dutch, or these days, God forbid, Russian? Some of Rader’s implications lean toward Dostoevsky, who gets a mention. This is a book with many epigraphs, some quoting writers whose first language was not English. Some are unnecessary flourishes.

“O listener, I think of you alone there,” continues the poet at war with his dilemma. But he also uses the word ‘saints,’ as in, “waiting the way saints wait,” because the rigorous doubters hedge their bets. And he and I and readers of countless persuasions know that the universe is full of wonderful saints, secular and devout.

One simply cannot write anything today and be in neutral gear or park. So when Rader calls a poem “America’s Frogs and Toads are Disappearing Fast,” and credits a Reuters headline for the title’s inspiration, he also puts himself and his audience back in the mess of the world we have been given. Note my passive voice. He’s looking at a bucket of algae, at ‘’blue death,’’ and he is also recalling:

 

that it has all

arrived from

somewhere,

what is

is what was,

 

like the blistered

light of a burst

star, long ago

 

imploded, only

now flashing in

our silent sky.

 

This is transcendent, and beautiful.

Rader has had some trail-breaking teachers in the poems and prose he refers to in his epigraphs, and their words are part of his physical body—where he moves, where he thinks, where he mourns and where he is exuberantly happy. Colson Whitehead and Walter Benjamin are two prose masters he quotes in this volume, and “Self-Portrait at Easter” begins with an epigraph by Emily Dickinson:

A Pang is more conspicuous in Spring

 

Prayer is the season of difficult belonging,

the ritual of rehearsal, both prune and blossom.

The flows of my heart flock

once more like geese going south.

Everything is at it again, even language,

which I have taught to lie low

except when I need its sharp shiv.

 

We come to language the way we come

to this life, which is to say confused

and desperate. We are nothing but need.

 

History swarms like a bowl of bees

broken for its honey. Let me intercede

for the fallen glass on behalf of gravity.

Let me speak for the mallet on behalf

of the nail. Let my words rise like

the soft bread of the body….

 

Somewhere in the silence the bright beak

of a wren drills its way toward the moon.

The sky is cinch and lock. The stars have slipped

on their black hoods, the long ropes of the dead

hooked to the battered bells in our hearts.

What sings is what we lack.

 

All sins, Simone Weil says, are attempts to fill voids.

 

And the Lord said You are small for a purpose.

_______And I said yes.

And the Lord said I have made you broken so that you might heal.

_______And I said yes

And the Lord said I have chosen another.

_______And I said amen.

 

Your utterance might be smoke, Father,

But not every word is on fire. Come closer.

Look down. Let me show you how we burn.

Each thought here creates an urge to say why it ripples out with meaning. Simone Weil, mystic and probable anorexic, was a tragic expert at facing, filling and emptying voids. Rader is just as honest, and healthier.

“We come to language the way we come / to this life, which is to say, confused.”

We come to poetry to take pleasure, and to ingest and face profundities in shapes our ears and eyes prefer to prose. How does Dean Rader help make sense of them all? Dear Reader, count the ways.

***

Author photograph © Lisa Beth Anderson.


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →