Felix Dennis lived a remarkable life, making his fortune from magazines covering advances in the technology sector, before devoting his final fifteen years to poetry. I Just Stepped Out is a unique collection, a testament to Dennis’s skill and a self-penned funeral eulogy. Dennis was determined that if anyone were to have the last word on him, it would be himself.
If there is a taboo surrounding writing about one’s own death, then Dennis has shattered it. The collection is divided into two books. The first, “Premonitions” covers the time immediately prior to his diagnosis with terminal cancer; this is followed by “Verse Diary” chronicling more than sixty poems written between his diagnosis and death. The second section is the more powerful: a reflective meditation on his own life, life in general, and the world around him. Most of the later poems come with brief notes, offered his own critique and context. The evocative “Last Journey” however, comes without a note. While not the last poem in the collection, it seems to stand alone. That very lack of musing from the poet creates a stark statement, one both of fear and an acceptance of finality:
Our terrors in the saddle,
Our courage in the van
Our love strapped to the baggage packs,
We ride as best we can.
Dennis’s notes on his other poems are invariably comforting, rich and warm with a reassuring and familiar intimacy. The final stanza of “Last Journey” lacks that comfort; instead, there is a resigned acceptance. In this poem as Dennis imagines opening his notebook, the Muse pushes him to write just a little more, even when in a metaphorical desert.
And open up my notebook,
To Scrawl, slumped on a dune,
‘The ends of things are broken roads
Yet mostly come too soon.’
“Last Journey” offers a chilling experience so that when Dennis’s notes return to accompany the following poems, there is a relief, the welcoming an old friend as it were. The note to “Nothing Can Change” is a beautifully arch rant against the flaws of religion.
All their excuses are bogus. All their beliefs are worthless, especially, their sly insinuations about an “afterlife”. All they crave is the power to control the lives of others. And that is the unvarnished terrible truth of human history.
Dennis often referred to his poetic Muse as a latecomer, but as we read the notes in conjunction with the poems, we realise that it was the poet’s own love of life, poetry and his dedication to the craft of writing that spurred him on. It was unsurprising to read that he had handed in the final manuscript not long before his death. In a last Herculean effort, keeping with his outspoken personality, Dennis, a towering literary figure, passed into myth and legend.
I Just Stepped Out’s final poem, simply titled “Doubtful” is a single stanza long. Like “Last Journey” there is no note, only a wash of blank space that signifies the end:
It’s doubtful I could bear another Spring,
The winter in my heart could hold no room;
And yet, whatever fate the gods may bring,
Within my mind, the bluebells are in bloom.
It is highly unlikely that Felix Dennis will be forgotten any time soon. His is a rich legacy and it is fitting that this collection is his best. Like all artists who bow out, Dennis leaves you wanting more, despite knowing there is no more to come. The experience is bittersweet, but much like an old friend this enriching poetry can be visited repeatedly –Dennis has not gone, he is just on the next page, ready, willing, and able to inspire, becoming part of the muse himself.
David M Graham