Book Review

Unexpected Shiny Things by Bruce Dethlefsen, Cowfeather Press, 2011. $16.00

Reviewed by Julie L. Moore

Several years ago, I was walking my dog down the road from our then-new house when one of my neighbors, a retired school teacher and farmer, was working on his front lawn. Wanting to pet my black Lab, he approached me and struck up a conversation. Before I knew it, two hours had passed, and Maggie, having patiently waited all that time, started pulling on the leash to get going. But I had heard my neighbor’s entire life story. A childhood in a local orphanage because of World War I. A stint in the Philippines in WWII, yes, under MacArthur. A son-in-law killed in a car accident. And the horses in his fields meant for the tracks in Kentucky. What unfolded in that conversation was the rich, complex life he’d lived, yet without calling attention to himself.

I was reminded of my neighbor’s voice when reading Bruce Dethlefsen’s latest book, Unexpected Shiny Things. Dethlefsen’s poetry reveals both humor in the quotidian and heartache amid tragedy but combines them both like the conversation with my neighbor—in a folksy and unassuming voice. In this way, Dethlefsen’s style is an acquired taste. At first, I felt disappointed by how the poems lacked imaginative language, even punctuation and capitalization (except for the first-person pronoun); plain-spoken, Dethlefsen’s poems have to be taken on their own terms. Each line represents what a person can say in one breath, like in a neighborly conversation. Yet, once I met him on those terms, I noticed the keen eye Dethlefsen has as he writes about ordinary existence and the ear for music his poems display as they sing both of surprising joy and immense grief.

The book is divided into five sections, all extending the light motif the title alludes to, and one poem in section three seems to reveal a rationale for this structure. In “The Penknife,” Dethlefsen reflects not only on the day the character in the poem found a penknife with a flashlight and note from his father, who’d left the family nine years before, but also on the note’s contents:

these are the five rules of life it said
overlight     comedy
underlight     horror
backlight     romance
no light     film noir
love dad

And as the reader works her way through the book, she finds those very aspects, depending, indeed, on the light.

The first section, for instance, called “Stars on Strings,” threads together people and places and their unexpected losses and pain: a difficult marriage, a missing boy, a nursing home patient, a friend’s death, all intertwined like the rats and roses he describes in his poem, “A Vacant Lot in Guatemala.” Above all is the horror of grief. In fact, in a poem bearing that title, Dethlefsen foreshadows well the fourth section of the book, which explores just that in the wake of his son’s death. “Grief,” he writes, “is salty numb cold water / come in waves / from the sadness of the sea.”

“Golden Coffee Sunlight,” the book’s next section, embraces spring in Wisconsin and reflects on birds which “dare [to] survive / without [him]” as well as a figurative bear that only appears to him when he “smell[s] the shyness in the leaves.” Only then will the bear “snorfle [his] hand / and brush her paw across [his] chest.” Indeed, romance tromps through this section in the form of a love for nature. One of the loveliest poems in the collection also appears in this section. “Conversion” reads,

I watch the autumn lake turn over
the air is colder than the water
the sun scoots on its butt across the sky
pin oak and red floating maple leaves
squeak against the side of my canoe
how can I stop this drooping of an eye
I see my breath
I smell decay
the clouds now upside down
begin to crystallize
the only way I will survive
is to invert myself
turn inside out
so my warmth comes
from within me not without
I zip my jacket up
I pierce the water
with my paddle one more time
and northward glide

This poem not only explores themes that appear throughout the book—how to endure the coldness and darkness of unhappiness and loss, for instance—but also demonstrates well that folksy voice in lines like “the sun scoots on its butt across the sky.” It also helps to tie light to water, a juxtaposition Dethlefsen returns to again and again. For example, water figures prominently in “Cross My Heart,” where he writes, “I hope to die by water / . . . among ferns / ferns dripping with golden coffee sunlight.” And thus it is that Dethlefsen considers light, water, life, and death simultaneously amid deceptively simplistic language. One might even argue that the film noir aspect of the book is that deception.

In the center of the book, entitled, “Sifting Starlight,” Dethlefsen moves back in time, reminiscing on childhood experiences in the dusk-like light of memory. He remembers playing astronaut on his school’s playground, celebrating imagination (“Astronauts”); enduring the classroom discipline of a second-grade teacher, revealing her harshness through biting sarcasm: “miss smootz must have been a real teacher / I learned so much from her” (“Apple”); and as he echoes the sentiment in “Conversion,” writing about how as a ten-year-old, he “lived outside” himself when he used his slingshot to kill birds (“I Lived Outside Myself”). Balancing out the heart of the book are two poems: “1950,” which describes, in deeply moving yet unaffected language, his mother’s care for him, and “Scales,” which reveals his father’s unsuccessful attempt to break music’s hold on him.

Section four, which bears the book’s very title, explores the grief associated with the death of Dethlefsen’s son Willi, whose life was cut short at 26 in a moped accident. How Willi’s death unexpectedly shines remains multi-faceted. On the literal level are the lights throughout the section—the ambulance’s flashing red lights, the emergency room’s fluorescent lights, and even the light from coins in the evocative poem, “Shiny Things”:

I hide coins for my son to find
drop nickels ’round the playground swing
seed quarters under sawdust by the slide
place dimes beside the whirlawheel
I act surprised when he discovers
a penny along the woodchip trail
delight in the excitement on his face
his lucky smile finding unexpected shiny things

I seek objects that shine
collect and hold them in my hands
assorted coins that shimmer
crows so bright they start
the fire burning in the sky
my son his brilliant eyes
I turn them in the light
then hide them in my heart

On the metaphorical level, therefore, come the light of happiness and the light of love between father and son. Similarly poignant in Dethlefsen’s understated style is the poem “Monte Carlo,” in which he recalls that his son as a teenager believed “the future’s wholly one full tank of gas.” The poem, however, is also heart-wrenching, considering his son died in the accident he did. The future wasn’t a full tank of gas at all, not for Willi, and as that poem closes, Dethlefsen’s words take on a deeper and darker meaning:

I smile
kick his tires for luck
pat the hood and climb on board
the father
the car
into the sun we slowly coast.

Other poems in this, undeniably the book’s strongest section, are equally moving. In “How I Touch My Sons,” Dethlefsen notes how he has managed to “lose touch / and ha[s] not reached nor grasped nor held” his other son who “remains . . . just out of touch.” And in “Gone to Ground,” he recites his “three decisions” made in the hospital:

First no more resuscitations
save your breath    stand down
go call the donor folks
it’s almost harvest time
and last at ease
unplug all those machines
please stop that awful hissing sound
what’s grown so loved is gone to ground

In the book’s final section, “Chasing the Moon,” come poems about art and especially poetry. At first, I didn’t think the section really fit in the book; poems about poetry feel like they call attention to the writer, and the writing, and Dethlefsen’s inconspicuous approach in his other sections seemed more effective. But the familiar music in the poems helps this section work. Dethlefsen’s own musical background—he’s part of a duo called Obvious Dog—certainly comes through in the other sections: that neighborly voice, the simple rhythm of his poems, and at times, the end rhymes that feel neither forced nor trite but, where appropriate, humorous or poignant. Yet, it’s in this section that his poems sound most like catchy tunes. My favorite is the very last poem, “I’ll Take the Moon,” which likewise resonates with “Shiny Things.” Indeed, the reader realizes here that the poems themselves are like those coins. Others can take whatever they want, including the sun, but he’ll

take the moon
and dedicate what’s left of [his] life
to capture keep show and tell
utterly and complete
the epic story of the moon

The moon, indeed, is a fitting image for the book entire: It sheds light on an otherwise dark world, and that light, like the joy and humor amid grief, is unexpected and welcome.

Julie L. Moore is the author of Slipping Out of Bloom (WordTech Editions) and Election Day (Finishing Line Press). In addition, her manuscript, Scandal of Particularity, was a finalist for the 2011 FutureCycle Press Poetry Book Prize and a semi-finalist for the 2011 Perugia Press Prize.  A Best of the Net and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Moore has won the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize from Ruminate and received the Rosine Offen Memorial Award from the Free Lunch Arts Alliance. Her poetry has appeared previously in Verse Wisconsin as well as in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Journal, Atlanta Review, CALYX, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review Online, The Southern Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Verse Daily. You can learn more about her work at