Release Date: April 11, 2002
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Carl Dennis' "Practical Gods," for which he was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, is full of them.
There is Hermes, who, if you can hold him still, will "want to sit on the step/Under the stars for as long as you live/And sniff the fragrance of wine and barley/As it blows from the altar on a salty sea breeze..."
There is a guardian angel who tells her charge that the plaid jacket he's about to put on "Will prove too loud for the soft-spoken sensitive woman you're destined to meet tonight in line at the theater/When everything depends on a first impression."
And its pages are colored by saints -- official and of a kind. There is St. Francis, who cannot comfort the dying young nun with the assurance that her suffering has a purpose. There is the limonata peddler who appears to the speaker beside a Roman cemetery in the brutal head of an August day -- a "windfall" from the "Bureau of Joy." Even the Oracle at Delphi offers a blessing -- her foam-flecked lips uttering words meaningless and mysterious enough to mean what we need to believe they mean.
In a voice reminiscent at times of the Chinese poet Li Po, whom he honors in a poem dedicated to his friend and colleague, the late Mac Hammond, Dennis, a professor emeritus of English at the University at Buffalo, rides the waves of spiritual expressiveness and wonder, piercing the reader with observations so honest that they startle and shame.
Haven't we sat bored at the deathbed of a dear friend who forgave us even as we twitched in silence, acutely aware of the other things we might be doing? Haven't we allowed ourselves to imagine lives we envy as unhappier, more disappointed than our own -- and hasn't it drowned our envy in a moment of satisfaction that allowed us to keep going?
Dennis' gods, if they are real, if they are anywhere at all, are sitting in our kitchens, whispering in our ears about what to order at Happy Jack's, soothing our hearts and making them ache. In one rather startling poem, "Progressive Health," the speaker is invited to become a god himself by donating all his organs while still alive.
However long he might have to live, the would-be procurer assures him, it is nothing compared to the total years of life that would be realized by the six individuals who would receive his assorted parts. It is a burden the speaker can hardly bear. Can he make a life six times as full as it would be if he died? He is asked:
"Why be a drudge staggering to the end of your life/Under this crushing burden when, with a single word/You could be a god, one of the few gods/Who, when called upon, really listens?"
The book was not planned as one that would express religious -- "I would call them 'spiritual'" -- sensibilities, Dennis says.
"It was only in retrospect, after the poems were written, that I saw the connection among them," he says. "I've expressed an explicit religious perspective in other books, but this one is more focused, which is why I chose the name 'Practical Gods.'"
Dennis was not aware that he had been nominated for the Pulitzer and, in fact, the news that he had won for his eighth book of poetry was delivered in a call from an Associated Press reporter.
He is honored, but says the ultimate benefit may be in book sales and in a new confidence on the part of his publisher, Penguin Books.
Although the prize was awarded for "Practical Gods," Dennis assumes that he probably received it for the body of work he has written over the past 30 years, which includes eight critically acclaimed books of poems, scores of magazine publications, inclusion in the most prestigious literary anthologies and a book of essays.
"I think the judges were investing in a commodity that has legs," he says.
If "Practical Gods" has a message, he says, it is that we live our lives with care and attentiveness. Or listen to those voices we may call "gods" who give us practical advice or tell us the way things really are, as, in one poem, a gentle-hearted, but realistic, Euridyce tells Orpheus that she was gone from his life before he ever turned around to look at her face and that, frankly, if he could see the future like she can, he'd be relieved.
These gods speak of forgiveness and suggest how we should live, but do so during dinners at May Jen as we watch the rain on Buffalo's Elmwood Avenue; they engage us in the men's department at Kaufmann's or while traveling in the Tyrol. Their world is fraught with possibilities, parallel universes that do not exist, but offer alternatives to the way things actually turned out.
Regardless of the plethora of deities named and unnamed who populate "Practical Gods," Dennis says that he is not a particularly religious person, nor one who embraces the likelihood of a life beyond this one. Although he might not entirely discount any possibility, from Odysseus' shades to Buddhist notions of the reincarnation, he's just not counting on anything like that -- he says it seems too good to be true.
"I wouldn't dignify the spiritual process here with the term 'search,'" he says. "I'm intrigued by religion and, of course, regardless of what we believe ourselves, we can hardly help but be engaged by various religious points of view. I've found that the dialogue with religious perspectives helps sharpen my notions of how I should live."
As his poetry makes clear, Dennis is acutely aware of life's losses and gains. One source of good fortune for him has been the UB Department of English.
"It has been a very congenial and welcoming place to work all these years," he says. "It's been open to writers being on the faculty and being a part of the life of the department. This isn't true about many English departments in the country, where there's often a radical split between the writers and the literary scholars. I've been very fortunate in that regard, and I'm grateful for it."
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