[Issue #8, Fall 2002]
Dogs Dream of Running
By John Lehman
Salmon Run Press, 2001
Reviewed by Karla Huston
Like his four beloved dogs, Kafka, Flaubert, Gatsby and Zelda, the poems
in John Lehman's Dogs Dream of Running lie waiting for us to pay
attention. They twitch and quiver, grab us by our fancies, take us for a
wild ride, or tickle our senses. They go deep and sometimes silly, fill
us with laughter and that something that every poem needs: a quiet sense
Lehman's poems often surprise us. In "The Telemarketer's Call,"
the reader expects the recalcitrant listener's irritation at being interrupted
yet again. Instead, the listener tells the telemarketer, "I'm going
to die."/ He's taken pills and now the pain/ of age and losing"
have taken over. The reader expects the telemarketer to be sympathetic,
but the telemarketer is instead reminded how pitiful his own life is. In
another poem, the Holy Ghost discovers the secret to life in a Denny's restaurant,
among "the unshaven, the tattooed, the dropouts and deformed."
In still another, the narrator finds himself on the roof, locked out, trying
to remove a screen and "unfold into the/ body of this house to open/
its doors to you."
Lehman's poems sometimes wax a little bit silly in this poet's very peculiar
world located somewhere between rural Wisconsin, and everywhere else. In
"Reasons I Do and Do Not Need to Have My Eyes Examined Very Often,"
the reader is confronted with a typical eye exam scene, dim, windowless
room, complete with yellow-lettered alphabet charts. Instead of asking what
the patient can or cannot see, the eye doctor begins to remove her clothes,
one titillating piece at a time.
"Can you see this?" she taunted,
flouncing her breasts. "Or this?" she stepped
gingerly from both panties and pants. I felt
the tip of her tongue by my ear's inner rim
as I braced expectantly against the leather
head rest and heard her whisper, "Just relax,
you can tell me everything."
And he does, the poor and momentarily sightless soul, he does.
Speaking of poor souls, what poet hasn't had the experience of reading to
an empty house, or if not the experience, the abject fear of it. In "Pornographic
Literature," the poet-narrator finds his reading unattended so he "grabs
[his] poster and quietly disappear[s]." On the way, he stops at an
adult book store, where: "the/ patrons take literature seriously,/
groping video boxes and plastic/ bags of nude bodies copulating on covers
of magazines." The recently so-snubbed poet muses, "Who/ ever
caressed a book of poetry/ with such urgency or quivered/ from thoughts
of what might wait/ inside?" Finally he imagines a world where:
...afterwards, when you're free
of sex, you can read a poem or
two, they're at least as good as
something else and, unlike porn-
ography, a book of poems can
be placed upon your coffee table
so if friends you want to impress
ask, "Do you get off on poetry?"
you can reply, "Yes, I put my arms
about it, yes and draw it down
to me, yes, I say yes, I will yes."
Not all of Lehman's poems are witty and wild. Some are filled with loss
and regret. Simple poems like "After My Son's Divorce" where the
narrator and son ride motorcycles to Turnagain Point, and the narrator "wonders
how far and his son wonders why." Fanciful and serious poems like "The
Flying Saucer Trilogy" with UFOs seen from three different points of
view. Or "Mother's Day," where the narrator's mother sees her
dead husband's ghost, a comfort to her now, this new found "ability
to raise the dead." Or "My Father, Too, Had Alzheimer's,"
where the patient appears to be the only one lucid, the only one smiling.
In "Her Vietnam Dream," the narrator's lover is not dead in her
heart and mind, not quite, she still waiting for him, her "Darling
One," who will always be "burrowing home" to her.
Still, the bulk of Lehman's poems are built on literary tease. Imagine a
neo-noir poem set in Rockdale, the newly poetic Mike Hammer "kicking
butt as an ad copywriter" there:
if The Big Metaphor didn't
do that well. Hell, there's
more bait 'n switch where
that came from. Product
claims and deadly slogans
that someday will shake
the silver screen. Hey, this
is two-fisted advertising,
mister, drinks, dames and
money games -- a ticket on
a fast train to an early grave.
Everyone's on the make,
mister, and no one is quite
what they seem. No one is
ever quite what they seem.
And speaking of no one being quite what they seem, there is the strange
case of the poet's literary dogs or are they those tale-waggin' literary
gods? In the poem "3 Big Dogs in a Convertible," the narrator
is out for a spin with his best buddies, those big hairy guys, four-pawed
thugs, bent on panting and drooling and "cruising for girls."
The day is "...crisp/ and cloudless and clear/ except for one/ sinister
tear/ wiggling its way/ up the windshield." Finally the rain arrives,
and they're all "wedged/ between windshield and dash." In the
...the wall of clouds
brightens from behind
like a movie theater curtain.
I honk the horn.
We howl in delight.
There's more to life than
petty cares --
we're four guys in a car
cruising for girls.
I feel so happy,
I climb in back
and let the Labrador drive.
Lehman writes about fathers and sons, supper clubs and sleeping poets, flying
saucers, war and other horrors. The reader will be delighted in his wit
and turn of phrase, his innate sense of how things work, the absurd and
silly in the everyday, the sad and lonely found there, too. Readers will
discover themselves in this book; they will find themselves thinking; they
will find themselves smiling, that tear "wiggling up the windshield,"
hair flying, heart soaring.
Dream of Running from Amazon.com
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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