Poems To Work On: The Collected Poems of Jim Dine
As Vincent Katz’s illuminating forward makes clear, poetry has always been an important element of Jim Dine’s art. Dine himself has related his poetry to the performance dimension of his output, and has commented on them as integral aspects of his artworks. Katz tracks the history of Dine’s complicated ventures into poetry, the earliest stemming from the time of his involvement with the visual arts. Indeed, in Katz’s words, Dine’s “oeuvre as a visual artist can justifiably be described as poetry.” Poetry here, according to Katz, is “taking one thing and making it into something else,” a refining of the modern poet’s “defamiliarization” that aligns the Pop rebus or collage of the painter with a poet’s decontextualization or deformation of language. What we get in Poems to Work On, Cuneiform’s beautifully produced book, then, is essentially a gestural act of refocusing, not so much the integrating of diverse pictorial and written elements that Dine is famous for but on a separating out of the linguistic element that enables us to sense and appreciate its qualities as poems qua poems on the page.
Dine’s poetry, like all of his art, draws on multiple twentieth century traditions. He plays with everything, surrealism, Lettrism, Pop Art, New York School (he’s especially beholden to its poets such as O’Hara, Koch and Ashbery) to name a very obvious few. What these movements and practitioners all have in common, as with Dine and his poems, is that they see history, especially the history of art and tradition as a cornucopia rather than as isolate and/or oppositional lesson plans for civilization and culture. The tone of the poems is generosity, and Dine’s relationship to the past is one of lighthearted opportunism, magpie tolerance for otherness, and a comic shoring of fragments as he flails along. Take these few excerpts from “Travel Dust”:
Two eggs follow me to
the Food Derby
I set my sight on toast
and loads of tea and pumpkin seeds,
mixed with four or five grapes
(in my mouth)
so I have energy
. . . .
Going real slow
by foot down river
out of Moscow.
Heavy guards around
. . .
All the greasy
machines get down on their knees
to spray hearts clear plastic.
Dine’s world is a topiary: here, seemingly beyond contradiction and critique, the crazy clutter of American city life and its “Food Derby” is set side-by-side with Moscow’s belching river and the machine and plastic littered mindscape of contemporary life. There’s an air of something off-target in Dine’s riffs and concretions as they run from insouciance to pathos, finally to settle into semi-comic professions of indifference, as in his Wolfman (Wall) where “the big action takes place next door. ALWAYS DID,” that often leads that insouciance into a sense of wonderment, as in “Oceans:”
THAT’S WHAT i LIKE!
LOOKing down THIS
UP IN THE SKY,
BLUE ON YOUR LIPS/
As with his Mobius-strip geography that is capable of touching a half-dozen points at once, Dine’s typographic moves ironize the passage above, the lower case letters undercutting its unabashed Gee Whiz boyishness in the same moment as its seeming artlessness grabs it back. In this sense, Dine’s work is both pose and poise; this naïf knows just what he is doing.
Which can be not only sophisticated entertainment, a sort of ramble through hi-jinks and mood swings, but also an anchorage for depth of thought. Katz calls Dine’s “The Untersberg Gift” a “limnal poem.” The poem, as Katz notes, constitutes a return to poetry after many years of not writing. At once manifesto and demonstration, the poem sits by itself, mid-book, showing Dine, after some twenty years of poetic silence, reaching down into himself for what impels his art, where having “spoken/to ‘the emperor’ many times,” he’s found in Untersberg the transformative moment of “the body/waiting to be opened to reveal itself (hopefully).” Is this “’emperor’” a self-imposed censorious governor inhibiting Dine’s free-wheeling emotions or are we watching some reconfiguration of an emperor’s “new clothes” moment of revelation that releases Dine from his self-conscious awareness:
‘Are you courageous?’ asked the Emperor.
‘No,’ I said, ‘but I am dazzled by beauty.’
Nature gives me the courage to persist,
in my quest for the fabulous treasure inside.
Barbarossa asks me to sing for him.
And Dine does sing again for us, with an often graceful observant humor that strikes me as endlessly quotable. This new mode seems too casual to call a method, but it’s built on juxtaposition and sudden unexpectedness, as in “Nite Letter:”
My, my they’ve taken to watering the red orange juice. Next
they will probably want me to drink umbrella handle wine.
A boyfriend and his girlfriend (two really swell looking kids)
are about to do something stupid in front of a telegram
and some stenciled palm trees.
At once urbane and “raw,” as an anthropologist might have it, Dine’s poems are full of verbal pleasures and comic tonalities, like that “umbrella handle wine” above with all of its top of the palate lollings or the “stenciled palm” that propels the imagination into some gallery of the new where an exhibiton of Dine’s work is being held. In these gestures, Dine replicates the complex feelings that his paintings give to viewers, who marvel at the precision of his draftsmanship as they are carried along through blurring and cascading traditions of art. The eye and ear rarely rest as they move down through the lines of a Dine poem, even as they often amount to self-knowing teasers. The poems are charmers, even as they raise questions of where a word is traveling or how expectations are transformed by syntax and diction. Despite the disjunctions, there’s a seamless controlling ear presiding over Dine’s poems that gives them weight and authenticity. And every now and then, all the lyric power comes over unapologetically, that is, without the interference of art-world and poetry-world zippy-zaps and defensiveness. What happens then is as magical as anything being written today:
….my eyes watch the downfall
of your eyes.
the downfall of the Leonardo highway
with mouth open and face white
phoning the world
new anxieties in free verse
one man in the cosmos
the saint of vanishing dreams
blue limbs, gold draperies
the child of the Baptist
rushing the ending
Poems To Work On: The Collected Poems of Jim Dine. Foreword by Vincent Katz. (Victoria, Tx: Cuneiform Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0986004032, 300 pp. $50