Review of Christopher DeWeese’s THE BLACK FOREST
Langston Hughes famously asked what happened to a dream deferred. To modernize Hughes’s question, what happens to a dream that is presented as fact, a dream laid out in stark, striking language? In The Black Forest, the debut collection by Christopher DeWeese, the poet masterfully choreographs the movement between the real and the fantastic. Ultimately, though, it is DeWeese’s matter-of-fact tone and delivery of dream-like material that give these poems the coherence to be a book.
The Black Forest begins in a real enough way: “I am from extremely real streets / hills where cars spun and slipped through Styrofoam winters.” However, the poem quickly moves to describing an existence spent with a tiger and then a lion. Similarly, hyperbolic transcendence soon enters the second poem: “You wish for peace or a sweet bicycle / but fifteen wars just started in your tiny backyard.”
Given the tonal and formal consistency throughout the book, there is no reason to suspect that the speaker ever varies. However, the nature of the ” you” is mutable. “I remember another autumn / where you and I were sisters,” DeWeese writes in “The National Forest.” Earlier, in “Poem for the Buzzard,” he writes, “I built a little roof for you / and left it in the desert.” In “The Librettists, he writes of the lovely yet obtuse image of a fox settling in his throat “when I met you.” Granted, all these second person pronouns could refer to the same being, but it is unlikely.
And it leaves the reader wondering how many stories are being told in this volume. This question is pertinent—and perhaps even poignant—because DeWeese’s wry delivery leaves little room for emotion to enter the poems. Even when DeWeese refer to images that could attract sentiment, such as the speaker losing his hands (“Interning for Ghosts”) or the war-riddled imagery of “The Soldier,” no emotion is quick to come. This is not a book about feelings, but a book about the gesture between scenes both real and transcendental, gestures that yoke together original imagery with a unified tone and form.
In an interview with HTMLGiant, DeWeese agrees with the interviewer that the book is driven by a “dreamy, logical monologue voice.” While DeWeese does not explicitly label the shifts in imagery as being dreams, the movements are evocative of a less confessional Richard Siken. In “I Had A Dream About You,” Siken writes about cows falling from the sky, throwing oranges, and a Safeway parking lot, among other things. “These are the dreams we should be having,” Siken writes.
What dreams does DeWeese believe we should be having? In the aforementioned interview, he writes that he does not wish to be associated with the Surrealists but more akin to the work of Max Jacob or Guillaume Apollinaire, whose poems he describes as “awake and caffeinated and yet still have a kind of dreamy logic to them.”
While DeWeese’s form departs radically from the prose poems of Jacob or the delicate lineation of Apollinaire, there is definitely some stylistic overlap in their work.
In Jacob’s “Poem of the Moon” (translated by Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney), Jacob writes:
There are on the night sky three mushrooms, which are the moon. As
abruptly as sings the cuckoo from a clock, they rearrange themselves
each month at midnight. There are in the garden some rare flowers which
are little men at rest that wake up every morning. There is in my dark room
a luminous shuttle that roves, then two … phosphorescent aerostats,
they’re the reflections of a mirror. There is in my head a bee that talks.
In “Tax Holiday,” DeWeese writes:
Like ice cubes,
the birds between my organs
sing me into shaking.
Outside my brain, leisure draws
lawn chair brigades
and bear within the topiary!
Jacob, who uses more dramatic language than DeWeese, is by far more surreal. However, both poets explore the strangeness of the body as a cache for surprising things (the bee in Jacob, the birds in DeWeese).
It is harder to draw parallels between Apollinaire and DeWeese. In Donald Revell’s translation of “Mirabeau Bridge,” there is a refrain, something which DeWeese does not employ in this volume. Further, Apollinaire writes that “Love elapses like the river / Love goes by / Poor life is indolent / And expectation always violent.” Not only does DeWeese seldom use words like “love,” he also shies away from the proclamations that Apollinaire makes in lines such as the ones quoted above.
Though DeWeese shares bloodlines with other “dream poets,” he manages to avoid being one of them by matter-of-factly employing dream logic, not proclaiming his poems themselves to be dreams. So what does happen to a dream that is presented as fact, a dream laid out in stark, striking language? Sometimes it makes for a stirring, original, awake and caffeinated first book.