Pastoral as Purgatory: Charmi Keranen on David Dodd Lee’s The Nervous Filaments

David Dodd Lee, The Nervous Filaments, Four Way Books, 2010

To sit down with David Dodd Lee’s fourth full-length collection of poetry, The Nervous Filaments, is, as its title suggests, not an exercise in tranquil meditation. Do not pour yourself a hot cup of tea and curl up in your favorite chair with this book, expecting to wax pastorally serene. Although Lee is certainly a poet immersed in the natural world, informed by its motions, he is also, to use his own words, as “pastoral as purgatory” (A Country Road). Find yourself a glass of wine and prepare to be transcendently transported to a parallel sphere. Poem by poem, Lee is going to deconstruct his world, “I believe in words. One by one/they dismantle everything I have faith in” (Wildlife), and then, reader, he’s going to deconstruct your world, and hand you the pieces “in the gray-green part of your eye–/a busted out headlight” (Not A Landscape, Not A Teaspoon), every piece infused with the emotion of living in an emergent world tragically tilted, perennially askew.

When we meet Lee in the opening poem, Loveless, The Gravel, he immediately lays claim to the reader, through his use of an unidentified “you” that persists throughout the manuscript, and asserts his right to examine and sardonically dismember the world in which they both live, not from a safe distance, but dangerously close. When he says, “I could see ambulance spelled/backwards” we know the universe isn’t in Lee’s rear view mirror, but he’s facing it head-on, all the while trying to make sense of the incoming messages, as frantically jumbled as they appear:

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

a crawdad sits in a cold
pool importantly praying

(cumulus nimbus)

and here is your

coming from a different direction

a couple of shaved ideas

Loveless, The Gravel also establishes Lee’s kinship with other writer’s works, as he gives a nod to Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, “I could see the eels spilling/out of the horse’s head.” This line works particularly well in the context of the poem, whether or not you are familiar with the work it came from, but at times Lee’s references will leave the reader lost or hitting the Google (what would we do without it!) search button. Fidelity To Rapture might require a little research to understand who Harry Callahan is—first choice, Dirty Harry; second choice, Harry Callahan the photographer. The prize goes to Harry Callahan the photographer, a perfect fit for the poem, but you’re going to have to dig around. Lee’s poetry comes with the expectation that the reader is not a passive recipient, but an active participant in the work of digestion. To come to this table you have to be old enough to hold your own spoon.

Lee is not above a little gentle persuasion to encourage the reader to come along, however. In Romantic he insists the reader’s story is right here, at this unlikely intersection of worlds, “after all that’s your head in the window/looking out/though rain/through snow/lonely lonely,” but leaving the window might not be the safest thing to do. A few lines later he jumps heart first into a snow bank with a scalpel to fully dissect romance with lines like “the myth of the soul mate” and “they shredded the moon again she said about the falling snow.”

Lee is addicted to peering into the convoluted machinations of the human heart which has been set churning through a field sown deep with desire. He is anxious to dismantle the ship and remove it from the bottle (Tachycardia), but he’s just as concerned about how to put the damn thing back in again. He certainly doesn’t want to take any responsibility for owning it,

Natural and pure
coming right out

of the toaster

the sun on a recyclable plate

It’s for you …

Reminds you of the time you got the window seat

a gull flying outside
simply looking in at you

that was a good day …

and then the bag doesn’t even
fit the vacuum cleaner

the tears
the tears

and they won’t take the cups off your eyes …

I keep thinking of that ship

can it ever be extracted from inside the bottle
and if so

how does one stick it back in …

when she took off her shirt
I suddenly wanted to count to two

over and over again

how odd, she said, and searched he palm
of my hand for a lifeline …

no line of credit

it’s called the human heart

The Nervous Filaments might leave you feeling a little on edge, slightly unsettled. And that is, I imagine, precisely how Lee intends it. Through his use of fragments he consistently fights against the reader’s natural urge to draw specific meaning from his poems. There are no pat conclusions, “the lack of punctuation will continue/the absence of church bells” (Geology Of The Lake Superior Basin), only open vistas seen from Lee’s unique vantage point, “I was just saying you never really/come to the end of this pier” (Fidelity To Rapture). It’s possible you might need to pour yourself another glass of wine to finish the book, if “finish” can even be considered the appropriate word in the universe of Lee. The lack of punctuation will continue.


Charmi Keranen holds a BA in English from Indiana University South Bend.  She works in Northern Indiana as a freelance writer and proofreader of court transcripts.  Her poetry has recently appeared in The Salt River Review, JMWW, Stirring, blossombones, elimae, The Dirty Napkin, Passages North and Ouroboros Review.

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