Book Review

Dallas Crow, Small, Imperfect Paradise, Parallel Press, 2013

by David O’Connell

The chapbook is the awkward middle child of the poetry world, rarely garnering either the prestige of a full collection or the relatively wide circulation of an individually published poem. This is unfortunate, because the unassuming chapbook—long enough to contain disparate forms, voices, and styles, while short enough to be read in a single sitting—may be the perfect vehicle for poets and readers alike. In the best chapbooks, the limited space results in a poetic Feng sui, rarely found in full-length collections, in which each poem is indispensable to the unified whole. This is the case with Dallas Crow’s Small, Imperfect Paradise, a collection of twenty-nine poems exploring betrayal, divorce, fatherhood, and redemption. By carefully juxtaposing confessional poems with dramatic monologues, fixed forms beside free verse, Crow creates a reading experience in which the sum becomes greater than any single piece.   

At the heart of the book, both sequentially and thematically, Crow places a series of ten highly personal poems that bring us through the speaker’s divorce. These works are accessible, brief (half of them eight lines or less), and blunt. They are announced by the title poem (the tenth in the collection):

            Small, Imperfect Paradise
            Imperfect as it is, this
            is paradise. My soon-to-be
            ex-wife, the traitor,
            sleeps upstairs, while I
            lie awake down here.

            Why is it paradise?
            Because the kids
            don’t know yet.      

Here, with a twinge of gallows humor, the speaker admits his state is “paradise” only relative to the disaster looming on the horizon. In doing so, Crow leaves it to us to imagine the moment the children find out and this bleak paradise is lost. It is a subtle, effective choice. So is the decision to juxtapose formal and conversational tones. Compared to the first stanza—its use of enjambment, caesura, and rhythm—the second stanza is purposefully artless. Crow accentuates the weight of the speaker’s dread and grief through this sudden shift.

Throughout this sequence, Crow’s willingness to indict himself saves the poems from becoming maudlin or self-pitying.  Though the speaker heaps blame on “the lying woman he never really knew,” (“Regret”), he saves plenty of derision for the “helpless dad” (“The Wonderland Blues”), “The kicked dog who forgives the foot,” (“Separated”). In “Noms de Guerre,” he takes this self derision to the extreme, almost gleefully naming himself “the butt of all jokes. / Asshole. Loser. Dimwit. Dumbshit. / The usurped. The usurpee.” The friction here between these accusations and the playful manner in which they are arranged on the page complicates our understanding of the speaker’s experience. While many confessional poets exhaust our empathy well before their final lines, Crow makes the pain beneath the clown’s mask truly biting by encouraging us to snicker at his expense. 

Even as Crow reflects on new relationships, he never allows himself to lose his unvarnished, anti-romantic view of his experience. We trust the speaker throughout these poems to give it to us straight. For example, in the opening lines of “Say,” Crow writes:

            we are making love, not
            because we are in love,

            but because we are not
                in love with someone else.

            Say this sex, this so-called
            lovemaking, is better

            than that of our failed
            marriages and rutty youths.

From the start, the speaker is unwilling to sugarcoat his experience, even when directly addressing his new lover. Though he implores—or maybe dares—this woman to “Go ahead: say it,” he knows neither of them is satisfied. Again, Crow’s attention to craft—the choice to write in couplets that mirror the relationship he struggles to define, the decision to hammer out the word “love” three times in the first four lines, and break two of the first three lines on a resounding “not” —emphasizes the speaker’s inner turmoil. It is this attention to detail that makes these poems worth returning to again.

The nineteen poems that almost equally bookend the divorce sequence are quite different in form and content, both from the confessional poems and each other. Many successfully take on traditional forms (double tritina, villanelle, prose poem, sestina).  In doing so, they not only display Crow’s range, but also push us to read his free verse with greater care, letting us know that the form of each poem was carefully chosen. A number are written in the voices of literary figures (Banquo, Antigone, a contemporary version of Prosporo) as well as ordinary men and women (a soccer mom, a farmer). Each of these voices, strong in their own right, resonates because of their juxtaposition to the speaker of the divorce poems. As Banquo reflects that Lady Macbeth “paints a fair smile / upon her face each foul dawn,” we reflect on the betrayal by that other wife. When the struggling farmer of “Diamonds From Mud” claims “I won’t stay mad; / I won’t be damned; the future is not dim,” we might imagine the same resolution coming from the divorcee struggling to come to terms with his loss.

Even those poems outside the middle sequence written in the personal vein are tonally different than the divorce poems. A number are written in the second person (“Adolescence, Iowa,” “Frank O’Hara in Iowa, 1980”), creating a distance that suggests the speaker’s experience “where summer brings with it a kind of despair, / as do winter, spring, and fall” is  universal. It’s also the case that the poems here focused on the speaker’s marriage (“Ordinary Magic”), his experience as a fatherhood (“The Aesthetics of Gravity”), and his life as a high school teacher (“Teaching the Villanelle,” “Separated”) are less concerned with “confession” than in discovering a larger truth from these experiences. As Crow writes in the conclusion of “The Aesthetics of Gravity”:

            …but I am convinced—
            watching my sons catapult and pirouette
            through the invisible air, then replay
            those all too brief moments of flight
            again and again for friends—they are
            enchanted by the aesthetics of gravity.

            Icarus is their hero, not for his
            Pyrrhic success or greedy heedlessness,
            but for his most delightful failure.  

That Crow intends the poems surrounding the divorce sequence to be viewed as bookends is explicit. Frank O’Hara’s connection to the poet is explored in both the second poem, “Frank O’Hara in Iowa, 1980,” and the final poem “Why I Am Not Frank O’Hara”. While the former is about the aspirations of youth and the formation of identity, the final poem brings the chapbook to a satisfying conclusion as the speaker literally unburdens himself at the airport security station before going on vacation with his sons:

            In front of these uniformed strangers I take off my belt
            and shoes, offer up my cellphone, my house and car keys,
            then slip through their metal detectors undetected.
            My only identifying traits: a jaunty step and a chartreuse shirt.

I cannot end this review without at least mentioning the way Crow cleverly weaves allusions to other poets and poems throughout the chapbook. From the epigraph of the opening poem (“After Linda Greg’s ‘Classicism’ and Raymond Carver’s ‘Romanticism’”) to the title of the final poem, which is a play on O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter,” Crow wishes to make clear his debt to the poets that inspired him. The chapbook is almost bursting with such allusions. Some of my favorites include a nod to Wallace Stevens in “The Emperor of In Between”:

            How good it is to insure a thing’s
            welfare, to save it, to put it in a jar
            and protect it from all of Tennessee,  

and a clever wink at Bishop’s famous villanelle in “Teaching the Villanelle”:
            I demure, though not demurely, tell them filling the form well
            is one art, playing with it an equally valid option.
            (emphasis mine)

as well as the bold use of James Wright’s most famous last line (“I have wasted my life.”) as the first line to “Prospero on Hay Creek.” Though it is not necessary to catch these allusions, an understanding of why and how Crow ties his work to these masters only enriches the reader’s experience of this excellent chapbook.    

David O’Connell has an MFA in poetry from Ohio State University and recently published his first chapbook, A Better Way to Fall, winner of the 2013 Philbrick Chapbook Competition. His work has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, Fugue, and Poet Lore, among other journals. He’s also currently a associate editor for Barrow Street Books and a contributing editor for the Ocean State Review.