by Dennis H. Lee
(Passager Books, 2020)
Dennis H. Lee’s award-winning collection Tidal Wave opens with a quote from Captain Newman, M.D., Leo Rosten’s 1961 novel about a World-War-II-army psychiatrist. In the quote, a cynic, a mystic, and a “man who loved reason” are asked what they would do if the island they were on disappeared under a tidal wave. The cynic would indulge his carnal desires, the mystic would make sacrifices and pray, and the man who loved reason would immediately “study how to live under water.” Tidal Wave reflects all three attitudes, with poems that focus on humor, food, and above all, a pragmatic view of the past.
Beginning in early childhood, the poems in Tidal Wave follow the trajectory of a long, well-lived life. In the book’s first poem, “Coney Island–July 4, 1952,” a summer day unfolds, with carefully chosen details describing a comfortable if slightly cloying atmosphere: “Grandma’s beef smoke / oils the underside of leaves” and “chicken fat soaks into brown paper bags.” The poem’s last lines evoke summer’s appeal, as well as its torpor, as seen through the eyes of a child:
I sit on the fire escape with kosher chicken and comics.
Grandma speaks Yiddish into the soup.
Tonight’s sky will be brighter than the Ferris wheel.
These lines evoke childhood in a specific place at a specific time, and a way of life that no longer exists except in the fragments of memory.
Tidal Wave is not especially nostalgic in tone—the poems don’t reveal an overriding longing for the past, nor do they romanticize it. Instead, they offer a glimpse into how memory operates, as in “Leaning in my tired seat.” As the speaker falls into a half-sleep while riding on a subway train, memories unspool from the present to the recent, and then the very distant past. In that half-awake, half-asleep state, he recalls a grandfather “dreaming of Russia, / of cows in a small fenced pasture along the road he walks carrying / eggs in a basket for his grandmother who had kind blue eyes. Sad, / but kind.”
The rituals of preparing and consuming food play a major role in this book. In “Arpeggio,” Lee details the sensual qualities of bread:
I liked to tear clumps of challah
from the round braided pile of bread,
squinching the piece in my hand to help
leverage the tearing, then watch it
slowly rise back to fluff.
The action of “squinching” the bread and watching it rise again is as important as eating it. In the poem, food and its savory delights open a floodgate of potent memories: malteds, bagels, and Maxwell House instant coffee, to which his grandmother added “three teaspoons of / sugar, then slowly poured in heavy cream / so I could watch it spiral and cloud its way down.” The poem reminds us that the taste, aroma, and texture of food have the power to bring back memories.
Eating is not always pleasurable, however. In “Lunch,” the speaker can’t find a group he feels comfortable with, “the accountants are talking baseball / … I don’t know sports,” “the secretaries / … know too much,” “the guys from the plant are too / down-to-earth … / They might just eat you.” The poem brings to mind the classic high school lunchroom scene where an unpopular kid searches for a group to sit with. Similarly, the anticipation of eating something delicious can quickly sour; in “The hand sanitizer at my new bar,” the penetrating odor of hand sanitizer ruins the flavor of peanuts: “my scotch won’t kill it. Not even / jalapeños.”
In “Eating Crab,” Lee compares reading the Bible to eating crab: “I have been tearing through the Bible, / looking for those morsels people / talk about.” The process of eating a crab, with its cracking and pulling meat from small cavities, is an apt metaphor for attempting to glean meaning from a dense and difficult text. As Lee writes about reading the Bible, “the little that reaches my mouth— / well, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.” By the end of the poem, however, he’s found something that justifies that effort:
A few little strands, sweet and succulent,
and I draw them through my lips slowly,
savoring. My hands need washing.
I do not wear a bib. My plate
is filled with cracked discards.
Lee has an ear for the absurd, as in “My Doctor’s Dog,” which expounds on physicians having animals in their offices—a dog, a horse, chickens—following, presumably, the therapy-animal model intended to put their patients at ease. It has the opposite effect on the speaker, who objects to “slobber on the pen” or the way the doctor’s dog “sniffs all over my legs.” He concludes that he’ll need to start a program of “self-healing.”
“Before you write from the heart” is an irreverent take on the gatekeepers of the literary world. In the poem, the speaker receives advice from an imaginary medical team. We quickly understand that they are editors posing as doctors:
We will inject
a dye that…will show when you begin
writing from the heart and when you stop.
The patient has no choice but to agree with the findings, “which will have no effect on the content / of any subsequent rejection slips we send.”
Some of these poems veer into darker territory. In “On Dark Wings,” the speaker holds the hand of his dying wife; her impending death filters through the poem with his gradual comprehension. From the “anticipation / … of a vacation” to “her dead hand” with its “gold meaningless band,” the poem gathers itself into grief as it ends, with the speaker too stunned to “even ask the questions.”
In “The Blood Room,” a child observes a patient “knitting needles in your hands, / IV needles stuck into your flesh.” The child’s curiosity regarding the woman knitting is at odds with her shyness; the knitter stays focused on her craft. The poem captures the absurd yet somehow appropriate pairing of IV and knitting needles; the child’s reaction holds these elements together.
Looking back at experiences doesn’t always bring understanding. In the collection’s title poem, “Tidal Wave,” an event that occurred at a beloved lake still mystifies, even after so many years: “what looked like a wall / of water, a giant wave, was coming right at me.” Unprepared for this catastrophe, he simply reacts: “I / dropped my rod and ran for the hotel,” unlike the measured responses of the cynic, the mystic, and the man who loved reason. The poem also reminds us that age doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom—sometimes reflection just intensifies the confusion.
Tidal Wave shows us how memories lie in wait, so often surfacing during moments when we are otherwise engaged. Accessible and straightforward, and imbued with a wry sense of humor, this book is the work of a poet who’s witnessed an enormous amount of change, and whose memories’ power and energy have not diminished.
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