Todd Dillard’s book “Ways We Vanish,” and How We Can Find Ourselves Again in Its Pages

Todd Dillard’s book “Ways We Vanish,” published by Okay Donkey, Cover Art: Sarah E. Shields

One of the hardest things for a reviewer to do is to select out the particular and most essential things which set any work apart from others within even just our own memories, or to perhaps find adequate words to paint pictures of words, not to mention taking account of any that others we’ve read might have isolated for attention.  So, reviewers may decide that a particular line or phrase, an image or even a whole poem deserves to be quoted.  Gven my own lack-and-well-a-day penchant for the hauntingly and suddenly rhymed, pointed line in a piece where nothing else rhymes, I could select lines from Todd Dillard’s book Ways We Vanish such as the final lines from “If You Are What You Eat Then Today I Am a Flood on My Mother’s Death Anniversary”:  “I too have let a child splash in rising waters/just to watch them run home, shivering, to me./I too have left the front door open and invited in the sea.”  Or, eschewing that tactic, I could pick the whole of the poem “Scratch Offs,” in which the governing metaphor is that of scratch off tickets, and the poem covers the track of time, of birthdays and whether and how much things from year to year change or stay the same.  But this work–though it comes in two separate books, and there are differences between them–functions moreso than some as a whole on the single topic of a life celebrating, coping with, and sometimes intensely grieving, family love.  There are more incidental poems, but they seem to operate as isolated moments, moments of freedom from the overwhelming, moments of curiosity about the outside world which can be spared from family life only occasionally.

First and foremost, this is a book of much spiritual and psychological cleanness, not versus being dirty or underhanded, but in the sense that it has a very special sort of subtext.  Usually, when people say “This has a subtext,” they often mean “This has an ulterior motive,” or “This has an anterior, hidden meaning,” and often they also mean “which I don’t entirely like.”  Others simply assume that everything has some sort of hidden/dishonest subtext.  Here, however, if Ways We Vanish has a subtext, it is an exciting one, for poetry, because the “ways we vanish” are ghostly in the sense of  being “ways we manifest,” the “ghosts” not being only the beloved dead and the past and gone moments that are manifested, but the living and present and in so far as the future is spoken of at all, even that.  All are luminous with their own manifestation.

The ghosts are very alive here, because the beloved ones always have a place, whatever pain has gathered about them as they lived or are living, and though I wouldn’t like to suggest something possibly sentimental or maudlin about a book which has such a clean, tight texture to its poetic stories, there is the same sort of sense in it of the dead persons as well as the dead moments still having a place in one’s contemporary history as there is in Wordsworth’s poem “We Are Seven.”  The difference being, of course, that here the voice speaking is one of an adult who knows the reality of death, not that of some “simple” country maid being interrogated in the Romantic haze of an elderly statesmanlike poet.

One of the poems I liked the most from the book is “Love Poem to My Brother As He Gives Our Father a Shave,” a poem which pictures two brothers with their father in a hospital room.  There is a comparison made about the sound of the scraping blade on the father’s cheek which is one of the loveliest and most touching I have ever heard:  “..that sound,/follicle scraped from flesh,/like tearing open/an envelope–its letter/good news–it says/you are alive/and the ones who love you/most are here, touching/your knuckles, wrist,/as if there grows on the body/a kind of Braille–“.

In fact, in general, the book is even at its most intellectual moments not a hidden text which one must decode and decode again; rather, it is a rough wolf’s tongue lick to its cubs and its mate as a sort of vade mecum into the true realm of poetry, the interior places where grows the root of poetry:  fellow feeling, family feeling, and creature feeling, such passages as those sharing tears and laughter with a small child: “my laughs love and mourn and see/they are like living that way.”  Here is a poet who is not afraid to say such things in the poetic voice, because they are from the excavations of the sometimes long-buried human voice, and he knows it.  And in reading this book, we too can find ourselves and our loved ones again, however long and away the time has been since we last were able to think in this way and say these things ourselves.  Rather, here Todd Dillard says them for us, in the saying of them for himself.

Shadowoperator (Victoria Leigh Bennett)

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Poetry and its forms and meanings

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