Dennis Held’s new poetry collection, Not Me, Exactly (Hand to Mouth Books, 2020), includes a poem titled “Captives.” In the space of 14 lines, the speaker recalls a childhood memory of watching from a school bus window a herd of dairy cows (“poor girls”), now unhooked from their milking machines and released back to their “frozen pastures seething in hock-deep muck.” He sees this scene repeated each morning, “day after mystifying day.” The speaker and the others on the bus are, in their way, captives as well. It’s a subtle linkage, made vivid by a precise and startling image of kids “… on the swaying / Seats of a school bus carving its way, isolate, / Down Town Line Road.” Who but a poet would substitute the pedestrian “curving” with the much more interesting “carving”?
“Captives” is not the only 14-line poem in Not Me, Exactly. By my count, just over half of the 62 poems here are sonnets in various configurations and rhyme patterns within the 14-line requirement. These are anything but flowery “little songs” written in this most traditional of forms. Rather, Held’s sonnets are muscular, edgy, daring. Their subjects may be common and homely: weeds, pancakes, oily rags, forage apples. But it’s Held’s startling treatment of them that lifts them from their ordinariness. Like “the broken pieces of a green bottle” in William Carlos Williams’ well-known poem, “Between Walls,” Held renders the commonplace things of the world as luminous, and thus memorable.
In “Road Fire,” for example, a father’s collection of battered “work cars… existed / in a mixed state like plasma or centaurs / not quite living but never fully dead.” In Held’s poems, even barely running clunkers suddenly become wondrous, strange.
Held’s voices in Not Me, Exactly span a wide tonal range, from light-hearted and comic to emotionally wrenching and politically scathing. Above all, he spins into gold the stuff of daily life, presenting them in compact, accessible declarations. Only two of the 62 poems in Not Me, Exactly, are longer than one page. Poetry strives for concision, for saying the most with the least, assembling, in Coleridge’s famous definition of poetry, “the best words in the best order.” On these points, Held’s poems deliver.
“Wild Asparagus,” another poem that brings the past to the present, has to do with why we remember some things and not others. The speaker recalls the pleasure of foraging and the vital importance of remembering where to look. Locating those secret, isolated places where wild asparagus poke up each spring along the railroad tracks becomes a source of solace, a brief reprieve from captivity in a home marked by violence and poverty. Here’s a key passage:
You had to remember where the poison ivy grew, and forget about your dad with a goose-egg over his eye, his wallet gone, the April house payment forgotten.
In “Ode to Buttah,” the poet’s comic voice takes charge: “No other oil sounds so much like Buddha / or tastes even remotely as divine.” Speaking of oil, in “The Oily Rag,” the speaker laments the forlorn “oily rag,” which, we’re told, “wasn’t always oily” and, furthermore, always ends up in a pile of other oily rags, with possible inflammatory consequences. The poem asks us to identify with the plight of the sullied rag: “You’re probably feeling a little / oily, too, perhaps a little ragged,” as if we might end up in a pile of fellow oily rags and expect things to heat up.
In “Why I am Not President: A Campaign Speech,” Held takes no prisoners. If ever there was a poem meant for this perilous, illusion-disabusing moment in the life of our country, this is it. “My shallow Americans,” the speech begins, mocking everything in its path, beseeching the crowd:
Give us once more the moolah for bombs smarter Than ourselves and drones that kill faster than children Can run and grant us the gall we need to plead Innocent before the court of history…
Poets, too, speak truth to power. The pseudo-speech ends with the word that ends all sermons aimed at true believers: “Amen.” Ouch.
Not Me, Exactly, the book’s suggestive title, comes from “The Man Who Is Not Me.” In its ten quick lines, the male-identified speaker reveals his hatred for a man, not to be confused with himself, who unintentionally provokes fear in a woman out walking at night. The world is still controlled by men; thus, women’s wariness of men, as in the particular circumstance noted in the poem, is not, sadly, unwarranted.
But there’s more going on here. The poem speaks also of the me-who-is-not-me, the other “self” who writes poems. By the end, the two ideas merge. The speaker understands that in the eyes of the woman he is a stranger, a potential threat, despite his attempt to signal otherwise by his nod. Even so, he knows by the last line that he has much in common with the man he hates. Here’s the whole poem:
The Man Who Is Not Me
I hate that man, not me but the man who makes the woman tonight switch her purse as I pass by on the sidewalk and when I nod she clutches it tighter. That same man made her cross the street an hour before; not me, exactly, but the man who is a stranger walking quickly toward her so she hurried across the street, the man who is or is not me but is most certainly a man.
Dennis Held’s poems sing clearly, in registers alternating between restrained and urgent. Not Me, Exactly does what the best books do. In the words of that famous drama critic Hamlet, the purpose of a great and well-acted play “is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.” Likewise, Dennis Held’s poems are both self-portraits and word mirrors. He holds them before us so that we may see truly, exactly, who we are.
Copies of Not Me, Exactly are available for $15 postage-paid from P.O. Box 1342, Spokane, WA 99210. Checks can be made out to Dennis Held.
Edward Harkness is the author of three full-length poetry collections, Saying the Necessary, Beautiful Passing Lives, and most recently, The Law of the Unforeseen (2018, Pleasure Boat Studio Press). His chapbook, Ice Children, was published by Split Lip Press in 2014. He lives in Shoreline, Washington.
Read poetry by Edward Harkness appearing in Terrain.org: two poems, winner of the Terrain.org 8th Annual Poetry Contest (selected by Robert Wrigley); two poems; and “Union Creek in Winter,” a Letter to America poem.