Night School

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Paperback
$20.00 US
On sale Apr 03, 2018 | 112 Pages | 978-0-14-313235-6
A masterful new collection of poetry from the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Ruth Lilly Prize
 
The poems in Carl Dennis’s thirteenth collection, Night School, are informed by an engagement with a world not fully accessible to the light of day, a world that can only be known with help from the imagination, whether we focus on ourselves, on people close at hand, or on the larger society.  Only if we imagine alternatives to our present selves, Dennis suggests, can we begin to grasp who we are. Only if we imagine what is hidden from us about the lives of others can those lives begin to seem whole. Only if we can conceive of a social world different from the one we seem to inhabit can we begin to make sense of the country we call our own. To read these poems is to find ourselves invited into a dialogue between what is present and what is absent that proves surprising and enlarging.
A Stand of Cottonwood

I'm glad to be here, amid these cottonwood trees,

Feeling the wind from the lake on my face,

Sniffing the marsh smells and lake smells

As I listen to the calls of unseen shorebirds.

And I'm glad as well to acknowledge my civic coordinates:

To be standing fifty yards from the Coast Guard station

Barely half a mile from downtown Buffalo,

At the western edge of the Empire State,

Which might have taken more care of its shoreline

Had it been ruled, now and then, by an emperor.

Self-seeding cottonwood that began to root

Some forty years back, I've read in a pamphlet,

After the beach shacks were torn down and dredges

Stopped dumping the sludge from the channel here.

Trees that like their feet to stay wet while I

Am thankful for the boardwalk path

Lifted a yard above the cattails.

Of the dozen birds named on the sign

Beside their outlines, I can barely claim to know one

By sight or sound. But that doesn't mean

I'm too old to learn. Already I can distinguish

Their calls from the traffic noise blowing in,

Now and then, from the Skyway, and the ship horns,

And the lunchtime bells from the Cathedral.

Maybe when I learn to listen, I'll hear

The tree toads scratching, or the tree roots

Gripping the stone-rich soil and drinking,

Or the termites tunneling in the logs-

All oblivious to how close they are

To what used to be numbered among the top three

Grain ports of the Western world.

So what if the grain is stored elsewhere now.

It's time to focus on the life at hand,

Which explains why I've donned my safari hat

And brought my binoculars:

Because it's now or never if I want to become

Familiar with the residents of my neighborhood,

Including these pioneer cottonwood

Rising above the boardwalk

And the birds unseen at rest in the canopy.

And why not include the three fellow pedestrians

Now approaching at a leisurely pace,

Who nod when I nod, as if they knew me

Or knew my kind. "Look, here's another

Late-blooming, cottonwood-loving creature

With a northerly range." Or, "Here's another

Self-appointed surveyor of urban wetlands

Who hopes to learn on the job

All he needs to know."

Fast Food

I'd like to believe that the middle-aged woman

Eating her dinner alone at the picnic table

Provided by Ernie's Red Hots, just off Route 5,

Between Woodlawn and Silver Creek,

Hasn't made a wrong turn in life that's deprived her

Of friends and family. I'd like to believe that the words

She was writing a moment ago weren't part of a letter

Accusing someone of betrayal or indifference

But were notes to herself, perhaps for an article

She's been asked to write by the magazine she works for

On fast-food providers on the eastern shore of Lake Erie.

Which of them take pride in their work-that's the question

She may have committed herself to investigate.

Here's a woman who's always found work in an office

Too confining, who loves exploring the hinterlands.

Thirty years ago she might have joined her brother

In the study of law if lawyers still rode circuits

As they did in the era of her father's granddad.

How sad to her the thought of being stuck forever

Inside one courthouse, though she'd like to believe

That some of the clerks at work in her brother's office

May find, as they browse a magazine on their break,

The very article she's now doing the research for

And be gladdened to learn they needn't be rich

To afford a meal that will leave them feeling

They've received, for once, far more than they expected.

The rolls at Ernie's, they'll learn, whether white

Or whole grain, are fresh, and the mustard

Offers an artful blend of piquant spices.

Before she gathers her notes and goes,

She may copy Ernie's address from her place mat

So she can send her review when it's published.

His own conviction of being true to his standards,

She realizes, may be all that matters. Still,

It's also true that a stranger's endorsement

May prove of use when he asks himself

If he's doing the work he was meant to do,

Or some of the work, at least, if not all.

Bad Days, Good Days

On good days as well as bad the odds

Against my birth seem overwhelming.

But on my bad days they imply that my claim

To existence is tenuous, barely more real

Than the claim of the billions of others

Who missed the cut, while on my good days

My presence seems like a miracle.

It hurts my pride on my bad days to recall

The story my mother told about her parents:

How they wouldn't have met if the train

That carried her father to the ship waiting at Hamburg

Hadn't broken down in a field near Brest-Litovsk

So he had to leave for America seven days later

On the ship that carried my grandma-to-be.

It hurts my pride to feel my destiny

Bound up with a broken axle or gasket,

But on my good days the wonder I feel

Is a smaller version of the wonder

Felt by cosmologists when they consider

How close the cosmos itself came to missing

The boat into being, to losing its chance

For passengers, ports, and oceans,

For stars as plentiful as grains of beach sand.

The difference between my wonder and theirs

Is that mine is infused, on my good days,

With gratitude. Of course, they're pleased

That everything managed to clamber aboard

In the nick of time, but the alternative,

Nothing at all, is too wispy for them to grasp,

Whereas for me the story of Grandpa's train

Grinding to a halt on a snowy plateau

Is a gift I never grow tired of opening.

What a privilege it is for me to join him

While he paces beside the track as night comes on.

What a privilege to share his brooding

On the difference between his life

If he makes his ship and his life if he doesn't.

On my bad days choice seems denied him.

He's no more free than the train is free to stop

Or start when it pleases, or to leave the track.

On my good days he's free to interpret the accident

As one last chance to cancel his plan to emigrate

And return to his friends and family, who want him to stay.

And now I conceive him as free to set the question

Aside awhile to note that the scene before him

Would merit a painter's close attention.

There he is, letting the lantern light absorb him

As it falls on the workmen kneeling in the shadows

Beside the engine while the snowy fields

Stretch away behind them into the framing dark.

And now above them a display of stars

Appears to be just in time, after a journey

Of many eons, to complete a picture

He isn't likely to see again.

Know Yourself

Know yourself, says the oracle at Delphi,

Confirming my doubts about oracles,

Their assumption the self is a book

Waiting for someone like me to read it,

Not a coat I stitch together each day

From dreams and wishes, habits and moods.

If you know, says the oracle, that the portion

Of courage you've been allotted is small,

Better avoid a career in fighting fires.

If you know that you're short on patience,

Think twice about a career in teaching.

But who's to say you couldn't acquire the courage

To enter a burning house if you served a long

Apprenticeship in dousing porch fires?

Who's to say you couldn't learn patience

By waiting a minute longer each day

For a student to follow the steps of your argument?

Not long ago I would fret when waiting in line

On the day of a concert to buy a ticket,

Thinking about the music I could be hearing

At home on the stereo, though I knew the concert

Might make me feel part of a ritual

That ushered beauty into the world.

But now I welcome the urge to join the audience.

Yesterday I would have felt extra lucky

To learn, when I reached the window,

That my ticket was the last one available.

But today I feel sorry that the woman behind me,

Who's been willing to chat with me

For close to an hour, will miss the music.

Am I really disturbed by the thought

She deserves to go far more than I do,

Having bought her ticket weeks back

Just to be sure she'd have one

Only to lose it yesterday evening

When she left her purse untended for just a moment?

Who will I be today, I wonder: a person willing

To right a wrong by offering her my ticket,

Or a person content with hoping she's found

Our talk so agreeable she's glad the last seat

Has gone to someone who seems a kindred spirit,

Not just to anyone?

Joseph's Work

He's done his work well for many decades,

Overseeing the produce at the market

His brothers own, where I've had a chance

To benefit from his careful diligence

In maintaining quality in the bins,

The same virtue displayed on a larger scale

By the Joseph his parents were thinking of

In naming him, the favorite son of Jacob,

Who ended up as the overseer

Of all the Egyptian granaries.

Like the brothers of Joseph in the Bible,

His brothers, he's implied in a few asides

Over the years, haven't behaved as brothers should,

Though they never threw him into a pit,

Angry their father loved him the most.

It was more a case of everyday bullying

That his father noticed but didn't stop.

As for forgiving them all as Jacob's son

Forgives his brothers-weeping with joy

When they come from Canaan in a time of famine

To buy grain-there the Joseph I know

Admits that he's fallen short,

Though he's tried to resist resentment

By avoiding their company evenings and weekends.

And now and then on Sunday, when the weather's good,

I've passed him as he's sat on a bench

In our local graveyard. Maybe it eases him

To wonder how many of the dead around him

Might have been happier if they'd managed

To put away thoughts of blame,

How many, if they couldn't manage to wish

Their brothers well, managed at least

Not to wish them ill.

And the next day he's back at work,

Making distinctions between plums

Fit to be served at a banquet and plums

Fit to be served at a potluck supper at home,

Marked by more than the usual lumps and bruises

But still to be savored, not too tart or sweet.

Blind Guest

I want to believe in him, the blind man

Who makes the other guests at the dinner table

Forget his blindness as he launches himself

Into the talk around him. I want to believe

He's moved by the lively exchange of opinions,

Not by the fear he won't be asked to dinner

Again if he sits all evening in silence

And the silence is read as suggesting

That luck alone has spared the others his hardship,

That by rights his days should be sunny too.

If I can believe he isn't looking for sympathy,

That he doesn't expect me to share his burden,

I'll feel so grateful that I may be willing

To do what I can to share it. Though I can't

Loan him my eyes once a week

For an hour or two, I can try to dwell

On the good it might do him to escape

The pervading dark for even a moment,

To visit the world only light reveals.

And I can try to picture how reluctant he'd be

To return the loan when the hour was out,

How unfair it would seem to him that I

Would be the lender always and he the borrower.

Two Lives

In my other life the B-17 my father is piloting

Is shot down over Normandy

And my mother raises her sons alone

On her widow's pension and on what she earns

As a nurse at the local hospital, a sum

That pays for a third-floor walk-up

In a neighborhood that's seen better days.

I play stickball after school in the lot

Behind the laundry. I come home bruised

From fistfights and snowball fights

With boys who live in the tenement on the corner.

Not once do I play with the boy I am

In this life, whose father, too old for the draft,

Starts a paint company in a rented basement

That almost goes under after a year

And then is saved, as the war continues,

By a steady flow of government contracts

That allows my mother to retire from nursing

And devote herself to work with the poor.

I find our quiet neighborhood of handsome houses

And shady streets crushingly uneventful.

No surprise I spend hours each day turning the pages

Of stories about trolls, wizards, giants,

Wandering knights, and captive princesses.

In my other life, I have to leave high school

To bolster the family income as lab boy

In the building attached to the factory that in this life

My father owns. I clean test tubes and beakers,

With a break for stacking cans on the loading dock

Or driving the truck to make deliveries.

In this life it takes only one summer of work

At my father's office, addressing announcements

Of a coating tougher than any made by competitors,

To decide that the real world, so called,

Is overrated, compared to the world of novels,

Where every incident is freighted with implications

For distinguishing apparent success from actual.

No wonder I'm leaning toward a profession

Where people can earn a living by talking

In class about books they love. Meanwhile,

In my other life, after helping to bring the union

To a non-union shop, I rise in the ranks

To become shop steward, and then,

Helped by a union scholarship,

I earn a degree in labor law.

I bring home casebooks on weekends

To the very block where I happen to live

Ensconced in this life, here in a gray-green house

With dark-brown trim. If I don't answer the bell

On weekends in summer, I'm in the garden,

Strolling the shady path beneath the maples,

Musing on the difference between a life

Deficient in incident and a life uncluttered.

Seated at my patio table, I write a letter

Asking a friend what book has he read

In the last few months that has opened his eyes

On a subject that's likely to interest me.

Meanwhile, across the street, in the garden

Of my other life, I can often be found

Hoeing the rutabaga and beans and cabbage

I plan to share with neighbors in the hope they're moved

To consider planting a garden where many
© Mary Richert
Carl Dennis is the author of 13 previous works of poetry, as well as a collection of essays, Poetry as Persuasion. In 2000 he received the Ruth Lilly Prize for his contribution to American poetry. His 2001 collection Practical Gods won the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Buffalo, New York. View titles by Carl Dennis

About

A masterful new collection of poetry from the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Ruth Lilly Prize
 
The poems in Carl Dennis’s thirteenth collection, Night School, are informed by an engagement with a world not fully accessible to the light of day, a world that can only be known with help from the imagination, whether we focus on ourselves, on people close at hand, or on the larger society.  Only if we imagine alternatives to our present selves, Dennis suggests, can we begin to grasp who we are. Only if we imagine what is hidden from us about the lives of others can those lives begin to seem whole. Only if we can conceive of a social world different from the one we seem to inhabit can we begin to make sense of the country we call our own. To read these poems is to find ourselves invited into a dialogue between what is present and what is absent that proves surprising and enlarging.

Excerpt

A Stand of Cottonwood

I'm glad to be here, amid these cottonwood trees,

Feeling the wind from the lake on my face,

Sniffing the marsh smells and lake smells

As I listen to the calls of unseen shorebirds.

And I'm glad as well to acknowledge my civic coordinates:

To be standing fifty yards from the Coast Guard station

Barely half a mile from downtown Buffalo,

At the western edge of the Empire State,

Which might have taken more care of its shoreline

Had it been ruled, now and then, by an emperor.

Self-seeding cottonwood that began to root

Some forty years back, I've read in a pamphlet,

After the beach shacks were torn down and dredges

Stopped dumping the sludge from the channel here.

Trees that like their feet to stay wet while I

Am thankful for the boardwalk path

Lifted a yard above the cattails.

Of the dozen birds named on the sign

Beside their outlines, I can barely claim to know one

By sight or sound. But that doesn't mean

I'm too old to learn. Already I can distinguish

Their calls from the traffic noise blowing in,

Now and then, from the Skyway, and the ship horns,

And the lunchtime bells from the Cathedral.

Maybe when I learn to listen, I'll hear

The tree toads scratching, or the tree roots

Gripping the stone-rich soil and drinking,

Or the termites tunneling in the logs-

All oblivious to how close they are

To what used to be numbered among the top three

Grain ports of the Western world.

So what if the grain is stored elsewhere now.

It's time to focus on the life at hand,

Which explains why I've donned my safari hat

And brought my binoculars:

Because it's now or never if I want to become

Familiar with the residents of my neighborhood,

Including these pioneer cottonwood

Rising above the boardwalk

And the birds unseen at rest in the canopy.

And why not include the three fellow pedestrians

Now approaching at a leisurely pace,

Who nod when I nod, as if they knew me

Or knew my kind. "Look, here's another

Late-blooming, cottonwood-loving creature

With a northerly range." Or, "Here's another

Self-appointed surveyor of urban wetlands

Who hopes to learn on the job

All he needs to know."

Fast Food

I'd like to believe that the middle-aged woman

Eating her dinner alone at the picnic table

Provided by Ernie's Red Hots, just off Route 5,

Between Woodlawn and Silver Creek,

Hasn't made a wrong turn in life that's deprived her

Of friends and family. I'd like to believe that the words

She was writing a moment ago weren't part of a letter

Accusing someone of betrayal or indifference

But were notes to herself, perhaps for an article

She's been asked to write by the magazine she works for

On fast-food providers on the eastern shore of Lake Erie.

Which of them take pride in their work-that's the question

She may have committed herself to investigate.

Here's a woman who's always found work in an office

Too confining, who loves exploring the hinterlands.

Thirty years ago she might have joined her brother

In the study of law if lawyers still rode circuits

As they did in the era of her father's granddad.

How sad to her the thought of being stuck forever

Inside one courthouse, though she'd like to believe

That some of the clerks at work in her brother's office

May find, as they browse a magazine on their break,

The very article she's now doing the research for

And be gladdened to learn they needn't be rich

To afford a meal that will leave them feeling

They've received, for once, far more than they expected.

The rolls at Ernie's, they'll learn, whether white

Or whole grain, are fresh, and the mustard

Offers an artful blend of piquant spices.

Before she gathers her notes and goes,

She may copy Ernie's address from her place mat

So she can send her review when it's published.

His own conviction of being true to his standards,

She realizes, may be all that matters. Still,

It's also true that a stranger's endorsement

May prove of use when he asks himself

If he's doing the work he was meant to do,

Or some of the work, at least, if not all.

Bad Days, Good Days

On good days as well as bad the odds

Against my birth seem overwhelming.

But on my bad days they imply that my claim

To existence is tenuous, barely more real

Than the claim of the billions of others

Who missed the cut, while on my good days

My presence seems like a miracle.

It hurts my pride on my bad days to recall

The story my mother told about her parents:

How they wouldn't have met if the train

That carried her father to the ship waiting at Hamburg

Hadn't broken down in a field near Brest-Litovsk

So he had to leave for America seven days later

On the ship that carried my grandma-to-be.

It hurts my pride to feel my destiny

Bound up with a broken axle or gasket,

But on my good days the wonder I feel

Is a smaller version of the wonder

Felt by cosmologists when they consider

How close the cosmos itself came to missing

The boat into being, to losing its chance

For passengers, ports, and oceans,

For stars as plentiful as grains of beach sand.

The difference between my wonder and theirs

Is that mine is infused, on my good days,

With gratitude. Of course, they're pleased

That everything managed to clamber aboard

In the nick of time, but the alternative,

Nothing at all, is too wispy for them to grasp,

Whereas for me the story of Grandpa's train

Grinding to a halt on a snowy plateau

Is a gift I never grow tired of opening.

What a privilege it is for me to join him

While he paces beside the track as night comes on.

What a privilege to share his brooding

On the difference between his life

If he makes his ship and his life if he doesn't.

On my bad days choice seems denied him.

He's no more free than the train is free to stop

Or start when it pleases, or to leave the track.

On my good days he's free to interpret the accident

As one last chance to cancel his plan to emigrate

And return to his friends and family, who want him to stay.

And now I conceive him as free to set the question

Aside awhile to note that the scene before him

Would merit a painter's close attention.

There he is, letting the lantern light absorb him

As it falls on the workmen kneeling in the shadows

Beside the engine while the snowy fields

Stretch away behind them into the framing dark.

And now above them a display of stars

Appears to be just in time, after a journey

Of many eons, to complete a picture

He isn't likely to see again.

Know Yourself

Know yourself, says the oracle at Delphi,

Confirming my doubts about oracles,

Their assumption the self is a book

Waiting for someone like me to read it,

Not a coat I stitch together each day

From dreams and wishes, habits and moods.

If you know, says the oracle, that the portion

Of courage you've been allotted is small,

Better avoid a career in fighting fires.

If you know that you're short on patience,

Think twice about a career in teaching.

But who's to say you couldn't acquire the courage

To enter a burning house if you served a long

Apprenticeship in dousing porch fires?

Who's to say you couldn't learn patience

By waiting a minute longer each day

For a student to follow the steps of your argument?

Not long ago I would fret when waiting in line

On the day of a concert to buy a ticket,

Thinking about the music I could be hearing

At home on the stereo, though I knew the concert

Might make me feel part of a ritual

That ushered beauty into the world.

But now I welcome the urge to join the audience.

Yesterday I would have felt extra lucky

To learn, when I reached the window,

That my ticket was the last one available.

But today I feel sorry that the woman behind me,

Who's been willing to chat with me

For close to an hour, will miss the music.

Am I really disturbed by the thought

She deserves to go far more than I do,

Having bought her ticket weeks back

Just to be sure she'd have one

Only to lose it yesterday evening

When she left her purse untended for just a moment?

Who will I be today, I wonder: a person willing

To right a wrong by offering her my ticket,

Or a person content with hoping she's found

Our talk so agreeable she's glad the last seat

Has gone to someone who seems a kindred spirit,

Not just to anyone?

Joseph's Work

He's done his work well for many decades,

Overseeing the produce at the market

His brothers own, where I've had a chance

To benefit from his careful diligence

In maintaining quality in the bins,

The same virtue displayed on a larger scale

By the Joseph his parents were thinking of

In naming him, the favorite son of Jacob,

Who ended up as the overseer

Of all the Egyptian granaries.

Like the brothers of Joseph in the Bible,

His brothers, he's implied in a few asides

Over the years, haven't behaved as brothers should,

Though they never threw him into a pit,

Angry their father loved him the most.

It was more a case of everyday bullying

That his father noticed but didn't stop.

As for forgiving them all as Jacob's son

Forgives his brothers-weeping with joy

When they come from Canaan in a time of famine

To buy grain-there the Joseph I know

Admits that he's fallen short,

Though he's tried to resist resentment

By avoiding their company evenings and weekends.

And now and then on Sunday, when the weather's good,

I've passed him as he's sat on a bench

In our local graveyard. Maybe it eases him

To wonder how many of the dead around him

Might have been happier if they'd managed

To put away thoughts of blame,

How many, if they couldn't manage to wish

Their brothers well, managed at least

Not to wish them ill.

And the next day he's back at work,

Making distinctions between plums

Fit to be served at a banquet and plums

Fit to be served at a potluck supper at home,

Marked by more than the usual lumps and bruises

But still to be savored, not too tart or sweet.

Blind Guest

I want to believe in him, the blind man

Who makes the other guests at the dinner table

Forget his blindness as he launches himself

Into the talk around him. I want to believe

He's moved by the lively exchange of opinions,

Not by the fear he won't be asked to dinner

Again if he sits all evening in silence

And the silence is read as suggesting

That luck alone has spared the others his hardship,

That by rights his days should be sunny too.

If I can believe he isn't looking for sympathy,

That he doesn't expect me to share his burden,

I'll feel so grateful that I may be willing

To do what I can to share it. Though I can't

Loan him my eyes once a week

For an hour or two, I can try to dwell

On the good it might do him to escape

The pervading dark for even a moment,

To visit the world only light reveals.

And I can try to picture how reluctant he'd be

To return the loan when the hour was out,

How unfair it would seem to him that I

Would be the lender always and he the borrower.

Two Lives

In my other life the B-17 my father is piloting

Is shot down over Normandy

And my mother raises her sons alone

On her widow's pension and on what she earns

As a nurse at the local hospital, a sum

That pays for a third-floor walk-up

In a neighborhood that's seen better days.

I play stickball after school in the lot

Behind the laundry. I come home bruised

From fistfights and snowball fights

With boys who live in the tenement on the corner.

Not once do I play with the boy I am

In this life, whose father, too old for the draft,

Starts a paint company in a rented basement

That almost goes under after a year

And then is saved, as the war continues,

By a steady flow of government contracts

That allows my mother to retire from nursing

And devote herself to work with the poor.

I find our quiet neighborhood of handsome houses

And shady streets crushingly uneventful.

No surprise I spend hours each day turning the pages

Of stories about trolls, wizards, giants,

Wandering knights, and captive princesses.

In my other life, I have to leave high school

To bolster the family income as lab boy

In the building attached to the factory that in this life

My father owns. I clean test tubes and beakers,

With a break for stacking cans on the loading dock

Or driving the truck to make deliveries.

In this life it takes only one summer of work

At my father's office, addressing announcements

Of a coating tougher than any made by competitors,

To decide that the real world, so called,

Is overrated, compared to the world of novels,

Where every incident is freighted with implications

For distinguishing apparent success from actual.

No wonder I'm leaning toward a profession

Where people can earn a living by talking

In class about books they love. Meanwhile,

In my other life, after helping to bring the union

To a non-union shop, I rise in the ranks

To become shop steward, and then,

Helped by a union scholarship,

I earn a degree in labor law.

I bring home casebooks on weekends

To the very block where I happen to live

Ensconced in this life, here in a gray-green house

With dark-brown trim. If I don't answer the bell

On weekends in summer, I'm in the garden,

Strolling the shady path beneath the maples,

Musing on the difference between a life

Deficient in incident and a life uncluttered.

Seated at my patio table, I write a letter

Asking a friend what book has he read

In the last few months that has opened his eyes

On a subject that's likely to interest me.

Meanwhile, across the street, in the garden

Of my other life, I can often be found

Hoeing the rutabaga and beans and cabbage

I plan to share with neighbors in the hope they're moved

To consider planting a garden where many

Author

© Mary Richert
Carl Dennis is the author of 13 previous works of poetry, as well as a collection of essays, Poetry as Persuasion. In 2000 he received the Ruth Lilly Prize for his contribution to American poetry. His 2001 collection Practical Gods won the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Buffalo, New York. View titles by Carl Dennis

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