Cambridge Book Review

[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 of mystery.

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:
...So what
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 end:
...the wall of clouds
brightens from behind
and opens
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.

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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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