Why devote oneself to that aggressively minor genre, poetry, when novels and screenplays get more notice and more money? Roger Dunsmore asks that very question in the poem "Does Poetry Matter?" from his new collection, You're Just Dirt. In the poem, Dunsmore, a University of Montana professor of more than 45 years, points out that:
Within this last month
I have received two accounts
of fine young poets of promise
One assured, even, of winning the prize
so marvelous a poet was he.
And both gave it up, poetry, that is,
one for screen writing,
one for fiction.
You guess, of course, the reason—
not enough money.
Indeed, the question may be answered by the very existence of the hand-sewn volume itself; FootHills Publishing, a 20-year-old family-run operation out of central New York, affirms on its website that the company's mission is to get "into print the words of poets who found it hard to get their work out to the public." Clearly, somewhere in the hills of rural New York, poetry matters enough and FootHills' purpose is reminiscent of a comment made by Wallace Stegner (alas, a money-grubbing novelist) in his letter "To a Young Writer": "The readers do exist...this audience, by and large, will listen to what you say and not demand that you say what everyone else is saying or what some fashionable school or clique says you should say." Rhetorically speaking, Dunsmore answers his own question by dismissing it: "Such a pernicious question," he writes in the poem's opening line.
The answer, however, is that we are always weaving and unweaving the history of our days, that the universe is inexhaustible, that we affirm our immortality by joining the cosmic dance that is always ending and beginning again. So the answer to the question "Does poetry matter?" is another question: "Why do anything at all?" Later in the poem, Dunsmore will ask: "Does poultry matter?/Do hens lay eggs/and roosters crow?"
The title of the collection may come across as an affront to some readers, but in the title poem Dunsmore points out that in the Crow language "[w]hen somebody is bragging themselves up/we have a saying,/ 'You're just dirt.'" Only, in Crow, the saying isn't the insult we think it is—rather, it's a call to humility: "It's like to be humble/humus on the board." The collection opens with an epigram from Thomas Merton that reads: "It was said of Abbott Agatho/that for three years/he carried a stone in his mouth/until he learned to be silent." Though the more than 50 poems in this collection illustrate that Dunsmore has no wish to be silent, the epigram, as an ode to one route toward humility, is at least partly apt. Indeed, the whole book, its publication as well as its contents, might itself be considered a celebration of humble ideas: its first section is on "The Power of Ordinary Things," the second recognizes "The Patience of Bears," and the third is "For the Unnamed Twin."
Although one wishes for more variance between the different sections (and for a tighter rein on some of the more cloying sentiment), the poems that make up these three sections are nothing less than a treat to the eye and ear. It's more common than not in recent years to read poetry collections built around a single theme (Michael Blumenthal's And, for instance) and a particular stanza form, making the poems, page after page, appear uniform to the eye. Here, Dunsmore, with the kind of confidence that comes after more than four decades of composing, plays around with multiple rhythmic styles, stanza forms and lines breaks. Nevertheless, his subjects stick close to home: the cultural and natural intricacies of the American West (in addition to teaching poetry Dunsmore also taught at the UM School of Forestry for more than 25 years), family and friends and early memories. Routinely, poems are dedicated to individuals, like to his dead father or old friend, James Welch. Often, poems will turn on a dime without ever losing sight of their original aim or intention. In the poem "The Same Air," (dedicated to "B.L."), Dunsmore begins with the heart-rending line, "You are the first to die" and the stanza follows, in melancholy pursuit, the events of the subject's death. In the second stanza, Dunsmore shifts tone, however subtly, to invoke a memory: "I remember hunting deer together."
Like the words of the title itself, Dunsmore's poems in You're Just Dirt ask the reader to take a step back, to pay extra close attention: The poem you think you're getting becomes something else the more you engage with it. As the line from the poem "Bad Behavior" suggests: "There's more to the story for sure."
Roger Dunsmore reads from You're Just Dirt at The Grizzly Claw Bookstore in Seeley, Saturday, May 29, at 7 PM with Victor Charlo. Free.