Present Vanishing: Poems, Dick Allen, Sarabande Books
You have a duty
to the unchopped liver, the unmade bed, the bookshelves
all out of order—a duty
you must fulfill with grace and courtesy
and great daily attention to the sacredness of things.
This small snippet from a piece in Dick Allen’s seventh collection of poems, Present Vanishing, might serve as the perfect epigram for the volume. Indeed, it might serve as the perfect epigram for all poetry writing and for life. While the poem’s title and Allen himself in interviews speaks to a deep affection for Buddhism, one need not be spiritually inclined to see the wisdom in Allen’s poems. We must, Allen suggests, view “attention to the sacredness of things” as our “duty.” Allen certainly does, and the poems in Present Vanishing remind the reader why Allen is master craftsman.
The subjects of Allen’s poems remind us to “remember there’s nothing but mystery in the world, / although it hides itself behind the fabric of each day, / shining brightly, and we don’t even know it” (American Buddhism, Section VI, ‘Mid-December’). It is sentiments such as this that elevates the poems in Present Vanishing from the mere classification of “Buddhist Poetry.” Not to say that this classification is pejorative by any means, but there is something fundamentally different between an Allen poem and, say, a Jane Hirschfield poem.
There can be an inherent danger to presenting the “thingness” of things in verse. Simply put, finding the transcendence of things can become a difficult task for there can be a lapse into a touchy-feely, new-age sort of verse in which the poet needs to stretch to “find” transcendence. That is, while the argument could be made that all things are worthy of poetic discussion and by extension the honor of attention, some things when it comes to poetry are “more worthy” than other things. Present Vanishing succeeds, perhaps, because for Allen, “the mystery of the world” is not necessarily always pleasant; there are not always chants, chimes, and orange-robed monks helping turtles across the road. The mysteries of this world can be dark and frightening as well as sobering.
To wit, there is a poem like The Blind. I would venture that this is about as good a poem as one is likely to find in the volume or anywhere else for that matter. Every line is a poem unto itself, and as the poem progresses, there is the initially unexpected but later unavoidable conclusion. “Over days, we carefully made our blind out of old branches / slightly woven together and covered with fallen leaves,” from these initial two lines our frame of reference on the poem is clarified. The Blind is not a poem about a subset of sightless humans, but rather, the description of a hunting blind—a description of an everyday “object.” What happens as Allen allows this poem to progress, however, is marvelous.
After the building of the blind, we get the first inkling of the darkness the world of this poem might contain. Those who man this hunting blind “sat holding thermoses / filled with coffee brewed in dark kitchens, / no cream, no sugar, simply bitterness—”. These “dark kitchens” take on an even darker connotation with the idea that these thermoses are filled with “simply bitterness.” Eventually, a passing bird entices the men to fire their guns and retrieve their prize. But, it is the conclusion of this piece that leaves the reader with his mouth open:
There, we kept our silence, not looking at each other,
or if we did, seeing no more than our young man faces,
tired and grim, so filled with misunderstandings,
doubt and guilt, no one would have believed
we’d come here by choice, and would return
year after year as long as the wretched blind
prevailed and the guns fit into our shoulders.
It is this idea, that the young men, “so filled with misunderstandings” are in some ways forced to return “year after year” to the site of this “wretched blind,” that is so moving. To look back on this short poem, it seems hard to remember how we got here as readers. It is hard to remember this poem began with the simplest attention to the building of this blind, so removed from a feeling about it like “wretched” or that it was built by young men with “tired and grim” faces. It is the sentiment that as long as the blind “prevailed” these men would have to come to it. This sense of fate is what transcends Allen’s verse. The very question life asks of us: how did it come to this?
Similarly, in the sonnet-like piece Hornets’ Nests. The poem is brief enough to present in its entirety, for it must be taken this way:
Hundreds of them, accursed, their papery gray masses
hidden in eaves, in the junctures of two-by-fours,
or hanging in shrubs or behind olive branch foliage,
wait to be opened. Even long-abandoned nests,
those which turn immediately to ash at the poke of a broomstick,
threaten revenge. Inside their hexagram cells,
everything seems quivering, thrumming, as if the workers know
death will come at first frost—each worker’s venom gone to waste
unless he can attack, protecting his basketball-sized empire.
And at the heart of everything, the larger body of sorrow
that will not die unless, from far away in the shadows,
we fill her nest with poison spray, or knock it down,
battering it, torching it when it falls, so that in some holy tomorrow
we may walk, unmolested, over the great green pastures.
This is a short poem filled with violence—natural and contrived. It is the finality of the destroyed hive knocked down, battered, and torched and the ultimate goal of that destruction that “we may walk, unmolested, over great green pastures,” that is so startling. This is, indeed, no typical Buddhist poem. Indeed, one cannot help but think that Allen has more in mind here with this piece. The euphemism of “stirring up a hornet’s nest” to describe, say, a sticky military conflict, seems apropos of American work in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly as we try to “burn out” various terrorist and insurgent “cells.” Aren’t we instructed to see these “workers” and their networks as “accursed”? Is it so hard to imagine a suicide bomber feeling his “venom gone to waste / unless he can attack”? Indeed, it is only after total destruction that we might feel safe enough “in some holy tomorrow” to walk through the “great green pastures” that seem all-too reminiscent of some patriotic song. Of course, it is just a hornets’ nest, though.
Verse like this clears space for what might otherwise seem like easy Buddhist platitudes by a lesser poet. This sort of poem “entitles” Allen to write about “that something going wrong that you can change to right / with acceptance and calm” (Plum), since he presents us with things actually going wrong—fundamentally wrong—with ourselves. Yet for all of that, Allen is also able to offer us hope. This darkness, while a part of life, is not all of life. This, too, Allen tells us, will pass. There is no better close to Present Vanishing than the final lines of the final poem: “And despite insult and spittle and disfiguring and bruising and lingering pain, / all shall be well; / and all manner of things shall be well.” After Allen’s meticulous attention to detail throughout the volume, I certainly believe him.