Book Review

The Vertebrae Rosaries, 50 Sonnets by Philip Dacey. Northfield, MN:Red Dragonfly Press, 2008. $12.00.

Reviewed by Brent Goodman

Philip Dacey's mind is shaped like a sonnet. Inside you'll find cellar doors, Thomas Eakins, the La La River, Taliban checkpoints, Walt Whitman, a pink vibrator, scraps of overheard conversations, Sioux Falls South Dakota, various nude models, and more sexual innuendo than an Enzyte commercial marathon.

The Vertebrae Rosaries is Dacey's 10th book of poems, and second all-sonnet collection in as many years. No stranger to form, Dacey co-edited the pivotal anthology Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (Harper & Row, 1985), a book which introduced a new generation of poets to the joys of playing tennis with a net.

What the reader will find in Dacey's latest collection is a master craftsman at his finest, able to comfortably play freely within structure while both honoring tradition and breaking new ground. Dacey is perhaps at his best in pieces assembled directly from conversation, using the sonnet form like a transparent vase, as in this collage of clips overheard at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

Found Sonnet: Remarks Overheard at the Wall

Do you have someone here?  Let me try
a different lens. Before we were born.
There it is. You mean all those people died?
We're underground. The war we didn't win.

They had a great big article on him. Oh
my god. Everything's picked up at the end of the day
and catalogued. This is not a TV show.
It was his first assignment. No fucking way.

Take a picture of us in the reflection. They're
not buried here. The order of death. It's simple.
This one could be a girl. He was making a career
out of it. Are you looking at this at all?

Excuse me. These walls are getting higher.
I've been here before. I can't believe it. My brother.

One might suspect that an entire collection of sonnets would suffer from bouts of form fatigue. Yet there are few if any filler lines or unnecessary slack to be found in this slim volume. Throughout, Dacey dances from profound to profane, whimsical to wholly smoke with grace and panache.

Whether you're a sonnet connoisseur or a curious spectator, The Vertebrae Rosaries is as fun and easy to read as it would be to teach in the classroom. Combining an easy-going voice with familiar geographies, Philip Dacey continues to make good poems. The Vertebrae Rosaries is a book worth turning over again and again between your hands. 

Brent Goodman is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Brother Swimming Beneath Me (Black Lawrence Press, 2009). His poems have appeared in Poetry, The Beloit Poetry JournalZone 3Gulf CoastCourt Green, and elsewhere.