Review of ‘And Yet…’ by Dennis Haskell
Haskell, Dennis. And Yet…. Perth: WA Poets Publishing, 2020. RRP $25.00, 83pp, ISBN: 9780648685029.
In the poem ‘The Adjectives’, which begins the final section of Dennis Haskell’s latest collection And Yet…, the poet advances four words in praise of a valued friend: “generous, direct, heartfelt, intelligent” (65). These adjectives also, I think, perfectly describe the verse Haskell has published over a career of more than 40 years. The last word, ‘intelligent’, all too often implies a certain cool, an ironic reserve which values the head over the heart, a circling round rather than a striking through. One of the many pleasures of Haskell’s poetry is it proves—again and again—we may be as intelligently generous, direct and heartfelt as we are intelligently anything else.
Haskell divides And Yet… into four sections: ‘Afterwards’, ‘Shifting Out’, ‘Doubtful Solemnities’, ‘The Moon, There’. The sections move through elegiac poems for family and reflections on living with grief, a series of travel and ekphrastic poems, a sequence which wryly mocks the pretensions of getting older and literary culture, and some tentative new beginnings. There are significant continuities between the sections. Each contains at least one ekphrastic poem, with the artwork attractively printed in colour on the next page. A concern with the modalities of aging—one’s experience of time, loss, absence, silence, and countervailing feelings of joy and presence too—provides thematic consistency.
The first section, ‘Afterwards’, raises a question—after what?—to which the first poem, ‘On the UP Campus’, gives an answer:
Forty-one years later
our son has his own son
and you are two years dead.
Life has its hard-bitten lessons
and of them I’ve had my fill;
I know much more than I once did,
and yet it seems to me
a miracle still. (3)
Haskell’s previous collection, the exceptional and raw Ahead of Us (2016), explored the poet’s experience of the tragic death of wife, Rhonda Haskell, from cancer. Time has since passed, such that the poet is now ‘after’ both the immediacy of that experience and his mode of representing it in earlier poems.
It’s his experience of this ‘after’ the poet represents in ‘On the UP Campus’. The meaning of the above lines is direct and heartfelt enough. It’s their tone that’s intelligent: rueful, wise, marked with grief and sadness. If the lines flirt with bitterness, they are not overwhelmingly so, and they are in no sense resigned. The strong rhyme of ‘fill’/‘still’ validates both the poet’s weariness of life’s ‘hard-bitten lessons’ and his wonder at its ‘miracle’. The rhyme gives neither experience primacy. Life’s ‘hard-bitten lessons’ are unable to dispel the miracle, but the miracle can’t erase the loss and grief which accompany the lessons. Haskell is a rare contemporary poet who is unafraid to deploy a strong rhyme for purposes other than bathos or irony. He engages the artifice of rhyme to fine effect throughout the collection.
Haskell continually worries away at a mismatch between what he sees and what he knows, as in ‘Days without End’: ‘I am getting older. Increasingly the world / I see is not the world I know’ (77). It’s not that Haskell thinks we can’t know things, but that we can’t choose the knowledge we end up with, and what we do know may not always be adequate to our circumstances. One of Haskell’s melancholy lessons is that the knowledge that comes with age best equips us not to make sense of the present, but the past. In this vein, ‘Childhood Innocence’ considers the speaker’s culpability in bullying during his school days. The poem asks a series of uneasy rhetorical questions which reflect on the moral understanding that age supposedly brings of the past:
Can guilt be retrospective?
Is knowledge of care
Seeded in us or wholly learnt?
What can I say in our defence? (63)
Still, it could be worse. The brilliantly funny ‘Been There’ satirises a ‘middle-aged couple’ who respond to each of the speaker’s attempts to ‘kindly chat’ with ‘been there, done that’ (‘Ah life, life—been there, done that!’) (75). So certain in their belief they have seen it all before, this couple has closed their eyes to life’s miracle the poet’s own hard-won certainty—that he knows some things, but not all—enables him to see but not fully understand.
Lacking understanding, Haskell turns to faith. He disdains the belief systems of organised religion in ‘The Garden of Eden’ and ‘In My Thinking’. He is sharp about departed friends or their relatives who opt for a religious funeral after a life of unbelief: ‘sinking at last / with calm, understandable relief / into the desperation of belief’ (53). Haskell rather places his faith, or trust and confidence, in the shared medium of ordinary human communication and his poetic art, language. He centres this faith with an epigraph from Paul Celan: ‘Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language’ (v).
The ekphrastic poems manifest this trust. The remarkable ‘Poppies’ reflects on the ‘still life’ of painting, ‘where the texture / of perception is made clear’ (66). Haskell trusts language to translate painting into its own, more ruminative, medium without muddying the clarity of the original artwork’s perception. So too do the more personal poems. The speaker of ‘Belief’s Possibilities’ broods on the addressee of his poem: ‘yet when I put pen to paper it’s “you” / who insists on being addressed’ (4). The ‘you’ here, ‘two years on’, is the same ‘you’, ‘two years dead’, in the above lines from ‘On the UP Campus’. Haskell trusts the pronoun to remain secure in its reference despite the loss of the person to whom it refers. This is another of life’s miracles, something Haskell has faith in, but can neither prove nor explain. In the generous, direct, heartfelt poems of And Yet…, Haskell has placed an intelligent trust in language to be not just ‘close and secure amid all losses’, but close and secure enough to communicate the depth of feeling that accompanies loss.
Matthew Bulfer is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Western Australia. He has degrees in both Law and Arts, and returned to post-graduate research following a brief interlude in a commercial law firm. His research focuses on the intersection between the lyric and politics in the poetry of Seamus Heaney.