Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #11, Spring2004]

Something Near the Dance Floor
By Bruce Dethlefsen
Marsh River Editions, 2003

Reviewed by Karla Huston

There's a beat here; there's a rhythm. Like a drum circle that rumbles of its own momentum, the poems in Something Near the Dance Floor tremble and ta-tum. They thump of old loves and bumble of failed relationships, yet there is always hope for something hopeful, something surprising. Some poems are gentle; some are generous in their lavish use of language. Some are written for sound's sake. Some delight, and some definitely disturb.

In "Monte Carlo," the narrator celebrates his son's coming of age, the kid's first car, the time when that kid can drive away, and there is nothing a father can do but go along, while hanging onto the door handle, foot jammed into an imaginary brake.
at fourteen and a half
he thinks the future's wholly
one full tank of gas

the cream and green boy
revved up gassed up
hitting on all eight cylinders
his eyes on the high beam
braces chrome and sparkle

the father
the car
into the sun we slowly coast

In "Evening Wear," the narrator bemoans the fact that the only way he can be near his son is to wear his watch, the father's need for him, "bound skin to skin / manacled if need be." The bewilderment the narrator feels is evident in poems that speak of other failed relationships. The narrator isn't a bad man -- this father, this former husband and lover -- just a man who doesn't do relationships well. In the poem "Tree Story," the narrator compares a failed marriage to a storm-felled tree, how the neighbors helped him clean it up, how, he tells the reader, "you never have to do this by yourself ." In the poem, "The House We Haunt is Ours," the narrator shows the ghosts of another failed relationship where two people can live together but cannot connect, even in the "little hours" of the night.

While Dethlefsen's narrators bemoan their failures, they celebrate, as well. There are love poems aplenty, and the moon, who seems to watch, like some lunatic chalk drawing, in the distance. In "Fingernail Moon," the narrator suggests meeting his far away lover as the full moon comes up -- in two different parts of the world. "So how'd it go for you," he later asks, as if he already knows. "I hope you saw the moon hang in the sky / somehow tonight / if only but a fingernail." In "Lovers Notes" the narrator suggests that if she doesn't like his love note, she should fall for a better poet.

Some of Dethlefsen's poems disturb, and isn't this the point? Most of us, for example, don't want to think about urns of ashes on our shelves, yet Dethlefsen in the poem "The Rest of You" offers other suggestions, including using the deceased's remains as talc, as fertilizer for the garden, or as condiment for his morning cereal . In "Ragewalking" he dares the unthinkable. So many poems in this chapbook dare something, and we're all tempted -- like looking up through a lit Christmas tree to see the star on the top -- but don't.

Dethlefsen's humor rolls under the surface of these poems to temper even the most outrageous urges, yet perhaps the most well-used instrument in his poet-toolbox is language. There is a rhythm inherent in these pieces, a careful crafting of words, attention to sound and the beat. Some poems seem to exist solely to exploit words that play well together. "Shebang" is a fine example:
these breeze oh ain't they sweet
these air to breathe
these sun wet world
these whole big blue green deal

and then these night
these children moon
these stars on strings
these stars
these twang of things

The poem "To Bees or Not" explains it. "A poet plays with words / the way a sculptor plays with clay" and "the drummer slaps his knees," because -- "the artist's hardest work / is mostly play." All of this comes together -- the rhythm, the beat, the self-effacing, and humor -- in the best poem in the book, "The Bone." "Men are dogs," he begins. "They sing the same songs dogs do / and understand about as many words / they say some are trainable."
you can pet them and rub them behind the ears
all you want
but remember
men are dogs
don't go near the bone
don't joke about the bone
leave the bone alone

What I like about this, and so many of the poems in this collection, is that it is so perfectly true.


Something Near the Dance Floor is available from Marsh River Editions, M233 Marsh Road, Marshfield, Wisconsin 54449.


Karla Huston has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in several state and national publications, including The Wisconsin Academy Review, The Wisconsin Review, Cimarron Review, Nightsun, The Comstock Review, Rattle, and others. She serves on the board of directors for the Fox Valley Writing Project and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

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