Breather by Bruce Dethlefsen. Madison, WI: Fireweed Press, 2009. $15
Reviewed by Lester Smith
In Breather, his third collection of poems, Bruce Dethlefsen dances a poet warrior’s dance upon the earth. Sometimes it’s the jazz dance of a cool cat eating jitterbugs under a streetlight on a hot summer night. Sometimes it’s the skipping of uncertain feet on an unfamiliar sailing ship, if life had only been different. Sometimes it’s a dance close to the precipice, a boogie around the edge of uncomfortable visions—the abuse victim rewarded with ice cream, the miscarried child, the miscarriage of justice, the failed marriage—but never do this poet’s feet trample a subject. Dethlefsen is simply too deft to stumble so; he dances with meanings, winking with word plays, inviting the reader to join in, have some fun, confess some pain, and recognize the beautiful futility of human life on a planet whose face was old before we arrived, and who hardly notices our presence.
Breather is divided into five sections. In “Migrant,” Dethlefsen digs into the soil, nods respectfully to the nearby lake with its history of names (and original namelessness), celebrates the ripe tomato and the tussling of raccoons, and coyly welcomes a fragilely adolescent spring (“you gave your mom and me / quite a scare there kiddo”), among other things, before ending with a pleasantly rhymed poem encouraging us to shine together through the night of our existence.
The “Knots” section deals more with family, often through boyhood memories. It opens with three young brothers raising such a ruckus (as boys will) that their mother ends up weeping on the curb, for all the neighbors to see. Her threat to sell them to the hot dog man remains with the grown poet years later: “we boys are grown / our mother’s gone for good / yet no one knows what really goes / inside those hot dogs / / so I look out for the man / who asks no questions / I listen for the jangle of his cart.” This section further includes photo albums found in abandoned storage lockers, the rabbit ears in which shoelaces are tied across generations, the everyday joys and shames of growing up in a Midwestern Baptist family, the rootless feeling of losing one’s childhood house, and ends with an image of father and son reading together:
as the child reaches
underneath the book
to help the father prop it up
their hands touch
underneath the book
and the story resumes
The poems collected in Breather’s “Poet Warrior” section deal with a more physically mature time of life, and in some ways more serious subjects, though playful language is salted even here. Consider, for example, the harrowing adventures of the illegal alien, told at a safe house, and the poet’s reaction: “unless I’m crazy I thought / some of his story even though undocumented / must be true.” This section also deals with war, protesting, and political awakening, as well as the impact of listening to Lucille Clifton read in a church so overcrowded that people swarmed outside around the open windows to hear. The section ends with a somewhat Bukowski-like response to a doctor saved from suicide by a poem, after his family had perished in a car accident.
Next up are the poems in “Secrets,” a section of primarily love-related poems, with all the loveliness and bitterness that suggests. Without spoiling this section’s mysteries, I can say that “Business Trip” and “Wishbone” are among my favorites, though “Up in the Cupboard” comes close, and again I enjoy the Bukowski flavor of “Butt Heads.”
In the “Autopsy” section, Dethlefsen’s verse takes on a sparseness akin to lines of haiku or tanka. Consider his opening with “Sawmill (for Ko Un),” for example, in which the expired poet is dissected in a search for images or words, but who has used them up, leaving the inquisitors to move on to “the autopsy of the moon.” (Your homework assignment is to find and read a copy of “Sawmill”; it was originally printed in an issue of Free Verse, by the way.) Dethlefsen continues this section with the corpse who gooses the undertaker, the lung cancer victim wetly blowing out birthday candles, the endless rain of retirement, the bleakness of winter and burials expressed as only a dancing poet warrior would dare. I’ll leave you with his concluding poem.
(for Thomas Lux)
all poems are of love or death
death comes from the west
love comes from the east
is born there at least
then circles 'round until
as sun blood red down dust
it settles in the west
all poems are of love and death
and all love poems die
Here’s hoping you’re convinced now to pick up a copy of Breather for yourself. I’ve purchased an extra to lend out to friends, and I recommend you do the same.
Lester Smith is an award-winning writer, game designer, and poet who works as a writer and technologist for Sebranek Inc., an educational publishing house in southern Wisconsin. He is also the current president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. As time permits, he publishes other writers via Popcorn Press.