Bruce Dethlefsen has a very big mind—the sort of mind that allows him to draw word pictures that are at once narrative stories, melodies, and free association free-for-alls. The thirty poems that comprise Something Near the Dance Floor show a mastery of rhyme, sound, and story. Dethlefsen moves between word and narrative poetry effortlessly, using words not just to tell a story but to create numinous, unpredictable geographies.
Periodically he will use rhyme to carry his rhythms and gently leads us down a familiar path only to flip our switch and leave us scratching our head at the poem’s conclusion. I loved it. Many of his poems made me feel weightless. A skilled writer, familiar with poesy and technique, he is relaxed as he lets his mind weave a latticework of story and symbol.
Dethlefsen does not use commas, periods, semi-colons, quotation marks, or capitalization — only occasionally does he use question marks or italics to guide the reader. For me, this creates a pure word read — a waterfall of movement and image. And as if he isn’t moving me fast enough already, he at times chooses not to utilize line breaks to alert me he is about to change direction. He veers in mid-line. From “Evening Wear” : “he forgot it though I thought it” and from “The Tree Story”: “the wind was from the west the sunset wind.” And again later in the same poem, “the pine tree fell forever then the thud,” and “the stump remained I dug at it for days.” This structure kept me in the poem allowing me to come up for air only at its conclusion.
Dethlefsen’s leaps to and from central themes become mind-bending in the best sense of the word. He layers line after line with atmosphere. In “Monte Carlo”: “I smile / kick his tires for luck / pat his hood and climb on board / the father / the car / into the sun we slowly coast.” And again in his beautiful “Night Sand”: “I draw each moon word / in the night sand of the beach / reluctantly // I hope I never / though the tides erase all trace / lose this lunacy.” I felt the distant strains of the great Wisconsin poet, Lorine Niedecker in this and a few other poems. She was a master of painting on water and leaving the reader feeling both pleasantly lost and refreshed, a quality I found in a number of Dethlefsen’s poems.
“The Rest of You” is a brilliant observation of cremation: “all night I worried whether I should use you / as a foot powder / so I could walk with you inside my shoes / wherever I might go / or daub you on my groin to avoid chafing / it seemed almost appropriate” and concluding with, “and while I was consumed with what to do with you / the rest of you / I spooned you with some sugar on my shredded wheat / I added milk / and ate you in a bowl of cereal / you tasted good // and that’s how I’ll remember you / with sprinkles.”
Here too is a poet with great heart who has had his share of heartache along the road to poetic enlightenment. Dethlefsen conveys these feelings with depth and whimsy. In “Lover’s Note” he states: “ here’s the love note I wrote her // each breath we take is but a token / what we’ve written wrote in reddest blood / when the awoken heart is broken / and every word unspoken spoken / so I guess I love you // okay I didn’t say it was any good.” He ends “Lover’s Note” with: “next time you’re so amorously smitten / either get yourself a better love / or write your love notes better written.”
“The House We Haunt is Ours” is a masterpiece. “…the grinding little hours / the crawling hours / the cobweb hours / blinking in the darkness // so few words pass between us / at the gate in the chain link fence / no gestures / waves / no overtures / I whistle and I swing my lunch pail back to work / as she heads home alone to warm the bed / we haunt the little hours / that pass for night.” It’s an injustice to print only a portion of this two-page tour de force.
Something Near the Dance Floor has such great range of heart and surprise. Dethlefsen’s innate depth coupled with his studied technique is a joy. He has assembled a first rate collection of poems. His first poem, “Table for One,” set me up well for the work that followed: “excuse me maitre d’ / this is for you / I need a smoke free table / somewhere closer to the music / with an unobstructed view / so please amuse me / choose me / something near the dance floor.”
I was surprised to learn this is just Dethlefsen’s second book of poetry. For work this integrated, ethereal, and technically varied can only be a gift after many poems written and many poems read. One would be wise to get a table close enough, with light just bright enough, to embrace his words. Something near the dance floor.
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has completed a novel based on memory titled, THE FATHERS WE FIND: The Making of a Humble, Pleasant Boy, from which When Memories Begin is taken. His second book of poetry titled Monje Malo Speaks English was published in January 2003 by Foursep Publications. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. His work was nominated for a 2003 Pushcart Prize by Anthology. His poems, poetry reviews and short stories have appeared in over sixty print and electronic publications, some of these being: FREE VERSE, ICONOCLAST, STAPLEGUN PRESS, POESY, CIRCLE MAGAZINE, PEARL, PIDJIN, THUNDER SANDWICH, WISCONSIN REVIEW and HALFDRUNK MUSE.