The Foreign Skin of the Familiar

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What’s most delightful is how Rader balances the heaviness of that observation against the lightness of the characters of Frog and Toad. Absurdity and lyricism, humor and serious contemplation, bump up against one another in pleasing ways.

I read Dean Rader’s Works & Days while on a train from my house in Virginia to my grandmother’s in Connecticut, wobbily underlining passages and scribbling notes in the margins. I loved the inventive playfulness of the poems, and the expert balance between moments of seriousness and humor. But, like almost all collections of poetry (or books in general even), Rader’s isn’t perfect. I often wished he’d ended at the penultimate stanza instead of continuing on to an ending that over-explains, or that he’d cut some of the more abstract theorizing that detracted from stronger moments in the poems. Despite those imperfections, I still took enormous delight in reading this collection of poems.

Throughout the collection winds a series of poems about Frog and Toad, characters taken from Arnold Lobel’s children’s books. “Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness” demonstrates much of what I loved about Rader’s appropriation of these characters. It opens:

The sun was hot in the sky
like a muffin in a bright blue tin.

The day was just the day.
The wind was nothing more

than wind, the leaves were leaves
and kept on being leaves.

Frog, however, wondered why
he was Frog and Toad was Toad.

Frog knew who he was,
but this strange morning

he feared he was the wrong one.

At this point, I wrote in my margin, “Frog & Toad get existential,” and chuckled to myself. But that’s what’s so wonderful about Rader’s project with the Frog and Toad poems—he takes up these children’s characters to talk about things that might otherwise seem overwrought. Think about it—to say “I, however, wondered why / I was me and you were you,” is such a lofty question—it would be almost impossible to pull off in a (good) poem. But Rader finds a way to deal with that concept in his poetry, by taking up a character that we remember from our childhoods as simple and placing him in our complex world. The poem goes on,

How odd they both wanted to fold
into the foreign skin of the familiar,

inhabit the Frog and Toadness
of the other—

It is impossible not to recognize the intrinsic humanity of that sort of desire—the drive for connection—but what’s most delightful is how Rader balances the heaviness of that observation against the lightness of the characters of Frog and Toad. Absurdity and lyricism, humor and serious contemplation, bump up against one another in pleasing ways. My favorite part of the poem is its conclusion:

Frog makes Toad some toast
with strawberry jam.

He waddles across the room,
sets down the plate,

pours Toad a cup of coffee.
The sun is hot in the sky

like a scone on a sky blue table.
Toad looks over at Frog.

Good old Frog, he thinks.
The bastard knows I hate toast.

Toad spreads the jam like a man
might smoother mortar on a brick

for which there is no building.
Thank you, he says,

Thank you Frog.

But not all of Rader’s endings are as successful as this one. At the conclusion of “Einstein” (a poem which contains the striking question: “What does it mean to see light / And think of a poem?”), there is a passage that takes us into the thoughts of Einstein himself. It has a wonderful sense of accumulation and buildup of tension:

Memory is the shadow of the present
Stretching backward

Forming the equation
To prove Borges was right:

God is a book.

This strikes me as a beautiful place to end, boom, maximum impact. But Rader continues to a final stanza:

The translator: me.
The language: desire.

Here, we see an illustration of Rader’s impulse to over-explain. He seems to have a palpable anxiety that his readers won’t “get” it, and as a result, he often ends up limiting and closing off the poem, instead of leaving things a little more open and trusting his readers to do the necessary interpretive work.

“Love Poem in 5 Couplets + I Line” might have been a stronger poem if we had only the five couplets. The beauty of the poem’s beginning is countered by its concluding explanation:

I want to know the word
For your back in the morning,

The noun for the sound you make
When my tongue goes along your breast;

The verb for my mouth
On yours.

The unknown language of bodies is vast.
Stacks of dictionaries around our bed

Are like the empty sheets
When you are away:

A symbol of what is missing.

This poem about “unknown language,” about our inability to fully express, undercuts its own point by expressing too much. We probably would have been able to figure out the relationship between the lover’s absence and the empty sheets (and, then, the dictionaries) without having it made explicit. But we can tell from the first part of the poem that Rader is definitely capable of writing a good love lyric.

We can see a wonderful example of his successful love lyrics with “Talking Points [Love Poem],” which also shows us some of the formal experimentation and play that Rader utilized throughout the book. The poem is written in bullet points and concludes:

• the time I drew back your blouse [&] [kissed the light of your skin];

• the light crashing down your spine;

• the light curving [off] the curve of your hip;

• the light from the _________, the light in your mouth;

• the light on your body that says [this way];

I find particularly appealing Rader’s preoccupations with language, God, and desire—and what I liked most about this book is that it managed to explore these themes and incorporate a delightful sense of absurdity and humor. As I read these poems on the train, I often found myself smiling to myself, even laughing—and maybe the other passengers thought that was a little odd, but isn’t it beautiful to enjoy a book in that way?

Sometimes poetry can get Serious, and it’s refreshing to read a poet who has a sense of balance—poetry maybe shouldn’t be all fun and games, but it need not limit itself to somber contemplation either. Although Rader could’ve had a bit more control over his explaining impulses in some poems, there is still much to admire and learn from in Works & Days and more importantly, much to enjoy. He manages to create poems that are perceptive and contemplative while also being fun, and this is the sort of balance many of us strive for—both in literature and in life.

Katelyn Kiley is an MFA student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She earned both her MA, in English with a specialization in American Poetry since 1865, and her BA from the University of Virginia. She works on the staff of Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts. More from this author →