Dean Rader’s book is full of vast expanses. The title is taken directly from Hesiod (a bold reference for a debut collection). The original was a key work of classical literature: a farmers’ almanac instructing the writer’s brother on how to work the land in the midst of a farming crisis. Rader comes from a different place and time: born and raised in Oklahoma, he is now professor of English at the University of San Francisco. But there’s a convincing sense of a connection across the centuries: both writers share a concern with land, labour and language. The cover image captures this perfectly, depicting a school desk in the middle of an open plain. (It works so well that it makes me long for a return to cover images—the Pentagram-designed Faber collections that dominate the UK market are beautiful but spare. Maybe we’re due a return of the visual.)
The first poem is ‘Travelling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral, I Write a Poem about Wallace Stevens’, The title already gives you a strong sense of the voice of the poet. Roughly halfway through, you find these two stanzas:
The elderly woman next to me
In 7D has been peeking at this poem
For several minutes.
I don’t mind.
Because the next line is this:
She will die before I do.
Pretty arresting stuff. The apparently easy narrative style is tightly constructed. There’s that echoing ‘ee’ sound in the first stanza: ‘the’, ‘me’, ‘7D’, ‘peeking’. Then the second stanza swings around the ‘i’ of ‘mind’, ‘line’, ‘die’ and ‘I’. This is a poet who instinctively writes with a fine ear, so that even the most conversational lines have an inevitability about them.
The opening poem’s bid for Best Title Award is swiftly challenged by the second poem: ‘Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness’. It’s the first in a series of poems based on the popular American children’s characters, transposed into a high philosophical setting. This is a nice meeting of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, which in previous generations of poets might have felt deliberately challenging or attention-seeking. Dean Rader comes from a generation (he’s about 40, I think), to whom such boundary-crossing comes much more naturally. In fact, it doesn’t really feel like the boundary is there any more. This collection draws on a cast of characters including Hesiod, Wallace Stevens, Frog and Toad, Yeats, Michael Jackson, Einstein and Oprah. But there’s no sense of playing to the crowd or dazzling with references. One of the opening quotes in the book is from Wallace Stevens: “Art must fit with other things; it must be part of the system of the world.” This is part of Rader’s writing mindset, and it’s a good thing. Too much poetry has no real purchase on the world, but this is a poet trying to engage.