Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast

I first read Dale Jacobson sometime in the 1970's when I found his long poem Dakota Incantations, a book (or "chapbook") published by Territorial Press (book imprint of Dacotah Territory magazine) in Moorhead, Minnesota, in 1973. At some point in the years after that we met, and have become friends and enthusiastic colleagues in the time since then. Dale's work is characteristically large in scope, with densely worked imagery built in strata layers, effecting a kind of narrative partly explicit and exterior, partly interior and impressionistic, creating a cinematic movement through the poems.

This fall I got my hands on Dale Jacobson's most recent book, Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast, a substantial selection of his shorter poems, published 2008 by Red Dragonfly Press. Though perhaps smaller in scope in one sense, the poems in this collection carry the same epic and invocational impulses, and the same rich imagery and textures, and Jacobson's longer works. It's a great pleasure to have this generous selection of poems by a poet whose work I've long found essential reading.

Jacobson plainly embraces explicitly left-leaning political content in his poems, as well as in essays and articles and literary criticism he's written over the years. From the poem "George W. Bush Reads the Future" (all quoted passages here are from Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast):
The ruler of all past empires
gazes down the long centuries
where dust does nothing
but settle, each mote joins arms,
a community of silence --

and all the time in the world
waits along with all the dead,
those of the future intersecting
with those of the past as the bomber lifts:

and who will ascend the sky
upon a cross of dead dreams
to put out the stars while below
wells of oil like lanterns blaze?
In his poems Jacobson has found a way to connect with a voice evocative of ancient places, a world of fires in the night, smoldering ashes along riverbanks, the slow sibilant movement of water, the communal rising of people intent on preserving life in the world. He grew up and continues to live in western Minnesota, a landscape of prairie and scattered forest and lakes and rivers and variable weather, which often forms an essential ground underlying his poems.
I saw the burned-out leaves set sail
down the rivers--yes, no news here:
how nothing quite worked out
as it should, how none seemed to know
themselves, how the war came and some
never returned, and how the young
high noon summer sun like a splendid
plaza voyaged long since into a dimming
those red vaults of glorious
sunsets where worn-out armies
murdered by armies disappear while
our footsteps walked out of play
with no place to go but work.

No news
in these arguments with our fate
except that the waste of time was
no accident or chance--this destiny
for the many, a cold war when
the bloody one was done, the sky
a horizon of fear--and endurance
a way of life for the poor, casualties
a nation could ignore of the other war.

The country roads fade into exhausted
nostalgias though the ditches remain
wild, and rabbits run in sleek long
darkness with eyes crazed by lunar light.
(From the poem "Beneath This Government...")

The poems in Metamorphoses of the Sleeping Beast are grouped in four sections: the first section, made up of the most obviously political poems (though again conscious political content is an undercurrent through most of his work); the section section, poems about or addressed to specific people, poets and writers and artists and others who have touched Jacobson's life and thought in some way; the third section, of poems broadly of love and the celebration of nature; and the final section, loosely made up of poems of mystery and (in some sense) philosophical exploration. From the poem "For Hunter Gray," in the second section of the book:
Jay Gould, who wanted Fridays black,
said "labor is a commodity,"
no news to Marx. But another kind
of work that shapes the world round
made the banker shudder!--
and though the nation still rushes
toward those nuggets of '49
one minute to the intersection
of dream and despair, blissfully
oblivious how late it is
into the senile century just born--who,
asks the miner deep among mineral,
mines the sky not for gold but its light?

America is a myth but something is older.
In those wild lands west where space
is ancient and terrain is free though
land be owned, shale rings with time
when rock talks to rock, and a long
catechism of echoes ricochets through
ravines indifferent if anyone hears
and no mountain will move for word or will.
When I read Dale Jacobson's poetry, among the poets of whom I sometimes hear echoes are, first of all, Thomas McGrath (with whom Jacobson studied and enjoyed a long close friendship); Pablo Neruda certainly; also William Blake's longer poems of ecstatic vision; and, sometimes, some of the poems of W. B. Yeats. I'm not intending here to speak of "influence," which is an elusive thing and manifests as much in a poet's intentions and instinctive impulses as in the actual poems. I'm talking here just of moments of resonance I pick up in reading Jacobson's poems, how they come to my ear.
Blue horses shift in the misty horizon...
Wisps of cloud escape from their manes.
Then they leap!--and no one sees
those hooves strike the edge of earth
and spark the burning fuel of dawn, all
the long-lived dreams of night on fire! [...]

[...] Into that dawn you step, into the world
that leaves its communal sleep behind.
I hear your secret name--in a bird's song
just beyond the open door--two musical
notes: calling the colors of the world from
their hiding places, and the butterflies
that trace the variations of the breeze.
(From the poem "Aubade.")

Here and there the voice in Jacobson's poems grows soft, quiet, almost delicate in its touch. The poem "Song of the Rose" incants a gentle lyricism, a gift offered to a passing stranger, or to a visiting friend, for the journey on the long road ahead:
I will sing to you this rose
when the moon blackens dew
in the solitary night theater
dark as the voice is quiet,

this rose I sing to you dark
reposed against the shadow its own,
which has no name for thunder,
filled with nothing but itself,

this rose of the moon I sing,
rose of dew that is part shadow,
shadowy rose circling its shadow,
a hummingbird fallen from moon,

i will sing and sing and sing
this rose holy as the dusty spaces,
song of the shadow only shadow,
song of the rose only moon.
For a full and true sense of the range and powers of Dale Jacobson's poetry, I also recommend his longer works. Three of his book-length poems that are currently available are A Walk by the River (Red Dragonfly Press, 2004), Factories and Cities (AuthorHouse, 2003, print-on-demand), and Exile in My Homeland (AuthorTree, 2006, print-on-demand). I recommend any and all of them.
Days collapse like shelters and the furniture
of the world changes and its renters who pay
with their labor are evicted and leave mysteriously.
Even so, everyone sings within themselves
as atoms sing, communal vibration inside
the great net of time and space that reaches
to the end of each day shifting its shapes
and though trees like tortured weather-dancers
flail, silence is a still lake suspended on itself.

Tonight a punctual eternity glistens in the dew.
The moonlight sleeps upon a leaf skating the tar
road, its slight grating edges sliding toward
no destination as I walk. And I fall within myself
like a torn leaf into a well and I hear each root
drinking dark waters. I hear the hollowness
spun from the wings of chaff over the prairie.
(From the poem "Fundamental.")

Lyle, as always , your reviews are excellent. I can blame you for loosening me of a good deal of money in books over the years. Of course now that I'm in outer space my pocketbook is safe:-)
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