Ben Doller’s third book, Dead Ahead, is a kaleidoscopic tour-de-force of whimsy and wordplay, yet it is also serious and severe. It uses the tension and release of jokes, but it is demanding and fulfills the reader with its rigor. Sometimes fragmentary, the poems nonetheless offer a sensation of completed statement. There is little in these poems that readers of poetry think of as “personal,” so they could be called anti-lyrical; rarely does a first-person speaker appear to reveal himself. Doller’s facility with language, and his wheeling imagination, which pushes language into fresh directions, never ceases to delight the reader.
The publisher’s ridiculous summary on the book cover will tell you the book alludes to a 17th Century English buccaneer and sea captain, William Dampier and the Widow Ching, another pirate who appears in a Borges story. This does not seem to affect the poems; they’re interesting without this scaffolding, some of which might be ornamental. I don’t know what the cover copy is trying to say here: “Doller troubles the blast zone where evolution and manifest destiny collide.” The book is much more vibrant and evocative than that vacuous nonsense suggests.
Dead Ahead offers a range of forms meant emphasize what the book does most successfully, to make its language move. Always under pressure, the language here can be playful at times (“the wight, the white, the wit, the weight, the way—”), like an incantation, and it can allude in a nuanced and provocative way to its language-stretching ancestors. “Column.,” for example, has elements of Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Monument,” but it becomes more than a mash-up of those perennial favorites. It becomes an ars poetica of supreme quality, and is one of the best poems in the book:
& silence this column is as concrete
as it can, it has stripped the land it came
from, circular but not reciprocal,
it climbs down or up to its quarterpoint,
morphine and phoneme, a simple machine
lever, wheel, pulley, incline, wedge & screw
there are things it could do but it doesn’t
know how to or know, it screws no heavens,
it levers no grave, it alludes only
This poem shares several qualities of many of these poems: the list, the pleasure in sound, taking cues from science, and even from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, a book of architectural theory. These patterns, too, imagine design problems, and their solutions. In this way, Doller elevates the mere experimental to poems that assemble structures of knowledge. The poem “Prescription Window,” for example, takes this epistemology to extremes: it uses the white space between a narrow and wide part of the poem to interact with each other, with the reader, a demanding self.
The ideal reader of Dead Ahead is a pure reader. This is not the publicly immolating, apoplectic Fred Seidel or the dry dreamscape of John Ashbery. It is similar, but not the same as the frequency of “langpo.” Doller puts the approach this way when he answers the question in the poem “What Do You Do”: “Hell I tie phototropic / cellshards to gulltails / via blowgun shape of / a slogan saying: // ‘Marry Me Immediately.’”
Some of these ideal readers may be put-off by the insouciance of these sorts of lines. The Doors had no bass player and the poems in Dead Ahead have little regard for expectation; lines frequently end in red herrings and make such fantastic leaps that the dime on which they are aiming to land is not a dime, but a button, a buttonhole, or day-glow Fruit Loop. Another quibble I have is that I wish as much attention had been paid to the punctuation as to the diction. Often it is ignored entirely to the poems’ detriment. In this way the poems do not take seriously Pound’s dictum that they should be at least as well written as prose. This gives the impression sometimes that the poems are uncontrolled. The carelessness and unimaginativeness of the punctuation and even the syntax does not at all conform to the quality and style of the word choice. Compare to Charles Olson’s treatment of like ideas. Punctuation is not decorative or an afterthought.
Neither a book for all times or all readers, Dead Ahead nonetheless moves poetry—especially the often-stagnant left-of-center variety—into fresh territory. Brimming with wonder and good taste, the poems are an expression of the fragmented, beautiful, hectic, chemical world in which we read.