Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sturm on Dodd Lee

Nick Sturm

Review of David Dodd Lee’s The Nervous Filaments

Highly dynamic, irreverent, subversive, and driven by a kinetic music that often breaks into riot, The Nervous Filaments is equal parts burning car and predatory rain, an unstable, hugely intelligent electrical box that bleeds. From “Loveless, The Gravel,” the opening poem, witness:

Here is your
story, in my

horizonless competence,

a nevertheless fine
kettle of


I could see ambulance spelled

I could see the eels spilling
out of the horse’s head

With a total of three books out in less than a year, including Orphan, Indiana and Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, The Ashbery Erasure Poems, it has become clear that David Dodd Lee has been eating deep sea, bioluminescent fish. How do I know this? Read these poems in the dark: they glow. From “Meditation: Farm Pond,” again, witness:

I don’t want any more goose bumps, the hunchback cries in her sleep

she who is just like you

reptilian-plasma lodged in the brain between cold rudders

poor cowering girl

naked meat-eater

These poems singe with their limber, imagistic abilities. Reading this book sometimes feels like holding an array of transparencies up to one another, aligning divergent frequencies and worlds in an attempt to see what shines through. Indeed, without due attention it might be easy to dismiss them as totem poles of non-sequiturs, if such a thing even exists. However, there is an uncommonly brave depth to be found in this book. Dodd Lee is a master of attention at the molecular level, casually juxtaposing line, image, and syllable in a fierce, uncompromising weather that accumulates into a brazen aesthetic project driven by place, experience, and a serious conviction in poetry as art. Absorbing and reimagining the poetic manifesto of Charles Olson (“One perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception”), The Nervous Filaments confronts a wide swath of American culture from abstract painting to Oprah to the Michigan wilderness. And everywhere Dodd Lee looks the world, the self, is falling apart, dissolving, going hybrid: “the geese half-mated with swans // the blood on their wings” (from “Who But I, O Reckless Death”). What can be salvaged is darkly illuminated. But even in a society utterly distracted by attractive packaging and the spectacle of reality TV, a calm, disturbing beauty breathes in the purgatorial heart of this book: “They shredded the moon again she said about the falling snow” (from “Romantic”). And the world is, these poems are, full of this unstable magic.

As for craft, Dodd Lee takes seriously the belief in the power of the line, its unfettered ability to transcend narrative and description through the continual discharge of imagistic energy. “I’m tired of pathos,” he writes in “I Am Never Going Back,” both a critique of contemporary poetry that begs for attention by tugging at readers’ emotional sympathies and a declaration of this book’s aesthetic ambition. Driven by the engine of the line and breaking apart in moments of crashing epiphany, these poems are difficult and engaging, challenging the rules of cohesion but always returning to the world and defining it in a way that is vital and full of passion: “love is a form of gambling,” (from “Geology of the Lake Superior Basin”); “the world is what you can see while breathing,” (from “Columbia River”); and “I believe in words. One by one / they dismantle everything I have faith in,” (from “Wildlife”). One by one, one by one, little wrecking balls in the dark.

Throughout The Nervous Filaments there is tension between the cerebral and the emotional, the human and the nonhuman, that comes through in moments of tonal variance, the mixing of high and low culture (such as Nietzsche and rhinestones in “Contract Pleasure”), and a post-pastoral perspective that finds little solace in the natural spaces that so many American writers and thinkers once looked to for inspiration and reinforcement of identity. A quick glance through the table of contents shows how close these poems are to the natural world, and this poet is unabashedly linked to the places these poems haunt. But with so much of the nonhuman diluted and absorbed into America’s vapid, post-industrial landscape, Dodd Lee feels trapped, betrayed: “tell me what you think I was thinking / and I’ll tell you rage is the outcome of // most reveries in Nature…” (from “Meditation: Farm Pond”). That the Nike slogan shows up in the middle of a poem called “Wilderness” is testament enough that something has gone seriously wrong.

In the volatile borders between the present and the future, the beautiful and the grotesque, clarity and confusion, The Nervous Filaments creeps under your skin in the worst, most exhilarating way. This book is a warning: you’ve never felt more alive than in the moment before everything comes crashing down. You sure-as-hell better start running.


At 8/22/2011 5:59 AM, Blogger Delia Psyche said...

"totem poles of non-sequiturs, if such a thing even exists"

That reminds me of Plath's "Totem," which is a totem of discrete images unified by such motifs as death, butchery, and snakes. Lee, too, provides some continuity among the non-sequitars--in these brief excerpts, at any rate. You have the anaphora of "I could see" in the first excerpt, and in the second, three of the five non-sequitars are about a girl. But any other patterns would have to be created by the reader. That, at least, is the impression I get from your review.

Looks like an interesting book. So he did erasures with Ashbery poems?

At 8/22/2011 8:07 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Glad to see these reviews getting more exposure. Very interesting...

At 8/22/2011 8:12 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Indeed he did a whole book of Ashbery erasures. I liked it a lot, and got absolutely no Ashbery vibe in any of it. It was interesting then in two ways.


I should have been doing this for a long time. I just kept not thinking of it.

At 8/22/2011 8:57 AM, Blogger R. Sanford said...

Great review of an insanely good book. DDL's movements are often as hard to nail down as one feels they shouldn't be, and this review gets at a lot of things rather well.

At 8/22/2011 11:27 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

On reviewing: there's a little exchange unfolding under the post on Anonymous Reviewing (HTML Giant is calling for the idea), by Brooks Sterrit. The post is from yesterday, so a few posts down.

At 8/24/2011 3:16 AM, Anonymous Nick Sturm said...

Kent, do you think I went in the direction of "fawning, toadyish criticism" or are you just pointing us to a larger conversation?

At 8/24/2011 7:28 AM, Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Hi Nick,

Mainly pointing to a broader conversation that could be seen as having relevance. John's post was not hjust on your particular text, but on reviewing practices more generally, I believe. And the point about fawning reviews in my Mayday thing is also meant to point to a broader tendency. So far as I know, no one has (nor can they, I suspect) seriously contest the claim in that regard. This is an age of poetic backscratching, if there ever was one. See you at AWP! (Though I wonder-- in what other directions might your review have gone had you written anonymously or pseudonymously? Maybe it would have been the same review, but who knows? You could still try. A kind of Janus-faced piece of criticism. Now THAT would be an interesting experiment...)


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