Steven Reese’s latest collection, American Dervish, as the title suggests, is about people on the move. The collection is divided into three sections, “Dervishes”, “Our Ships”, and “If You Lived Here”.
The first sequence of ten Dervish poems is an intense and fascinating characterisation of facets of colonial America. “Dervish”, the opening poem, begins:
Our history personified might begin
as that B western scene where the liquored-up villain
pulls six-shooters, says dance,
and starts blasting the ground out from under our feet –
and goes on to chart North America’s “dance”, “less barndance than/ dervish”, embodied in some of its places, events and iconic characters, including Johnny Appleseed, Barnum and Annie Oakley
In “Plymouth Rock Dervish”, the story of the early European settlers is interwoven into a description of the contemporary tourist site. There are Dervish poems, too, for Thomas Morton of Merrymount, an early colonist from Devon, Mike Fink, a hard-drinking, brawling keelboater and Vachel Lindsay, an early twentieth-century performance poet.
These Dervish poems whirl across the pages, brimming with energetic rhythms. In “Thomas Morton of Merrymount, His Dervish”, for example:
For every sure foot
that finds stone, one steps
in the river: for
every founder, framer redeemer,
a Thomas Morton,
the Devil’s disclaimer
to our charters and compacts and
sermons – a vermin, a Bacchus.
These are fabulous, dynamic poems of history, culture and social comment. I think it helps if you know at least some of the history and cultural allusions but, even if you don’t, the poems stand tall on their infectious sounds and rhythms. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that I would have liked to have read a whole chapbook or collection of them.
The poems of the second section, “Our Ships”, are more formal. They cover a diverse range of themes, from Fallingwater – an iconic house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and built out over a waterfall – to a humorous follow-up to Edward Lear’s original, entitled “The Dish and The Spoon Come Home”. It opens,
If that little dog laughs one
More time, they’d both said.
Add to that the cat’s scratchy
Fiddle, a cow on the wrong medication,
A night lit for travel.
After the strongly themed poems of the “Dervishes” sequence, I found this more eclectic second section slightly disappointing; maybe a little ill-fitting even.
In the third section, “If You Lived Here”, Reese returns with more coherent, authentic poems. He writes, autobiographically, about family relationships – fatherhood and father-son relationships, in particular – and about his own father’s years of living with Alzheimer’s disease.
In the seven-poem crown of sonnets Alzheimer’s sequence, “Broken Crown”, each poem, in line with the form, follows on from the one before. So, “Thin Air”, ends,
He believed something there
Looked out for him, and that’s all he would say.
Ascents were his high sign, next thing to prayer.
The next poem, “San Xavier del Bac” begins
Ascent. Prayer. Sign. Next thing I’m on the highway
North. I’ve felt followed by full moons before;
I enjoyed Reese’s writing – his love of sound and rhythm and his humour, in particular. And his themes of American history and culture as well as Alzheimer’s disease, relationship and loss all interest me. However, there’s something about the format – those three discrete and distinct sections – which I found disruptive and distracting. Just give me more Dervish poems…