Thursday Mar 23

DennisBookBook Review – Callings
by Carl Dennis
96 pages
Penguin (Non-Classics). September 28, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0143118381
Reviewed by Nicelle Davis

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Help Wanted, Hope for Hire: A Review of Carl Dennis’s Callings


Callings is a book that explores the occupations of poetry—the collection can be read as poetry’s résumé brought to life in voice and narrative. The poems work towards a unified goal—to inspire hope for a better world. This collection takes on the colossal task of winning our trust—to make us believe that we have a soul whose calling is to grow in character through acts of labor. In its optimism, Callings is the bravest work of art I’ve experienced in a long while, and for this I highly recommend reading it. However, like the experience of work, this collection isn’t an easy undertaking. The poems deal with many abstract ideas that raise complicated questions, such as: hope—what is that? and “A better world,” as defined by who?—Carl Dennis?—you?—me?—poetry? Is anyone, including poetry, able to say what feeds the soul? And for that matter, does the soul exist—and if so, how is it employed? While I couldn’t locate the exact function of poetry or the soul by reading this collection, I did feel employed by the poems to do the dirty job of contemplation. The poems gave me the impression that I was shoveling the manure of my doubts in order to discover human endurance and perseverance. All the while the book seemed to be looking on my toil and smiling with reminiscences of when it had to do the same.

However challenging the labor of these poems, Callings also offered me the comfort of feeling accomplished and with purpose while reading it. For the duration of the book, I was called to investigate what it means to work, hope, and have faith in more than a typical paycheck.

These poems redefine what it means to work; they claim that a better world is possible if we put our souls to the task of higher callings such as love, peace, and harmony. Dennis challenges our notions of “work” as he shows how emotional and spiritual commodities grow when our pocket money shrinks. In the poem, “The Best World,” traditional ideas of employment are inversed as the beggar’s employment is to test the charity of others. The beggar becomes the employer for those working at Dennis’ simplified interpretation of life’s most noble occupation—charity. He writes:

     Only the entrance of a raggedy man
     Jingling a paper cup might be a reminder
     Everyone has enough to live on.
     We’re here, not there; for in the best world
     Anyone begging there would be only pretending
     To be a beggar, to give others the chance
     To prove they were openhanded.

Just as the beggar’s position in society is elevated, the poem reassigns meaning to the word “work” by privilege to internal growth over social status. Dennis recognizes that the weight of our given circumstances are beyond our choosing, but argues that by carrying our burdens with integrity and respect, we substantiate our souls. The ending lines of this poem boldly assert that the best world is one of our choosing—that:

     As for the people working inside, it’s hard to say
     If they’re as grateful for their lighter spirits
     As their counterparts would be in the best world.
     Maybe some are, while others assume
     They’ve only the wind to thank, the careless wind
     That’s happened to nudge a cloud away.

This best world can exist only through an individual’s perspective. In the world most occupy, less labor and more pay equals a lighter spirit, but Dennis argues this light spirit does not lead to a substantial soul. Dennis’s words are filled with hope for the human spirit to reach new depths through the labor of small pleasures. As in the myth of Pandora’s Box, the best world finds hope after the terrors of daily life have been released. These poems capture the chimes of change in a beggars cup, before the music of hope can escape us.

Reading about hope is difficult during hard times. My current occupation as a poet resembles that of a beggar, and I don’t like it. At this point in my career, I would consider sacrificing a little of my soul for a steady paycheck.  To my delight, the collection is empathetic to my angst; it anticipates and addresses my hesitation to focus on internal work while the bills collected at my front door. Callings lends comfort by showing how all occupations lead to a place of beauty—even the uncertainty that comes with the work of an artist. But this assertion requires my cooperation; I must allow myself to hear a “voice from above”—to understand the power of metaphor as seen in the poem “Leonardo”:

     …if a voice from above could speak for us,
     It might inform him that with time so scarce
     Flight ought to serve him more as a metaphor
     For all he can do in his painting,
     For soaring in spirit to an ampler perspective
     Than the flesh can climb to on its own.

Work is our attempt to manifest the soul in the physical world. Poetry’s job is to put word-flesh on metaphor. In a way, Callings would argue that there are more important debts to pay then my cell-phone bill. The poem “One Future,” asks “who is the person you’d prefer to emerge” in the passage:

     But what if a feather’s weight
     Dropped on the lighter side of the scale
     Would tip the balance, the weight,
     Say, of a phone call from you
     Offering me an argument I’ve neglected.
     If you dial my number, you can argue
     You had to do it, given all you are.
     If you fail to call, you can say the same.
     Meanwhile, the question you face
     Is who is the person you’d prefer to emerge
     At the end of the chain of causes
     Now working unseen beneath the surface.
     Is it someone destined to withhold advice
     For fear he may be mistaken
     And held responsible? Is it someone
     Destined to disclose what he thinks he’d do
     In a similar situation, or, better yet,
     What he’d want to do if her were free?

Poetry is work. Poetry is a calling, a loud song demanding the impossible: hope. This collection might fail the cynic but it speaks to the possibilities embedded in the most disappointed romantic. If nothing else, this book makes the reader question why hope can’t be as powerful and present as unpaid bills. Dennis’s poetry makes me question whether or not unemployment might be the best job I’ve ever had.

It is a bittersweet thrill to read a collection of poems about occupations at a time of economic upheaval. In my town alone, the unemployment rate has stretched to the 15% mark. At times, I want to resist this book. In good ol’ disgruntled fashion, I want to tell the poems to take their hope and shove it—but I digress. Callings melts my skepticism with its patient guidance and sincere voice. The poems do not provide answers or assert solutions, instead, these poems prompt an inquiry. They question if we are valuing the right things in life. Reading Callings will not pay our credit card bills, it will, however, launch us on a voyage of joy and beauty – woven into the framework of everyday experience. Callings asks for us to have faith that poetry is a form of employment that has a currency that our souls give value to.

The poetry in this collection, works every job imaginable to put possibility on our tables—even the possibility of the souls existence. This of course requires a leap of faith from the reader, perhaps even a suspension of belief. If the reader is willing to make this leap, this collection responds with a full cast of friends. The poems take on the roles of store owner, prophet, pioneer, dancer, and numerous other employees to illustrate their qualifications to get the job of making hope done. Dennis takes the entity of Poetry and morphs it into a million different faces in order to show the breath of poetry’s job. For a reader who considers poetry an exclusive art made for academic snobs, Dennis turns the hands of a poem to show the dirt under the fingernails. For a reader who thinks of poetry as a bed for cynics to bread more cynicism, he writes lyrics that highlight the kindness and beauty of everyday life. The poems are innocent. The poems are sinners. They are hustlers, hustling for the currency of hope. In Callings, a poem will do any job if it means a soul will find compensation for its troubles.