Sara Crow Reviews Bryan D. Dietrich’s The Assumption
|The Assumption, by Bryan D. Dietrich (WordFarm, 2011)|
Dilithium and nacelles we’ll need. Perhaps a shuttlecraft.
But none of this can work without a soul to man the raft.
We’ve needed one, an Engineer, to make us, take us up.
Our fear is what has brought us here, oh Captain. Breaking up.
Yes, fears are what have brought us here, captains of the night,
sons of suns, engineers, dust clouds calving light.
In The Assumption, Bryan D. Dietrich’s fourth published book of poetry, Dietrich is both Engineer and Captain, building and holding his implausible ship of words together while steering us toward previously unexplored internal worlds. This book is about assumption in all its possible meanings. It’s about those assumptions, arrogant or ignorant, we make which may or may not hold truth, the ways in which we assume roles and responsibilities throughout life and what those assumptions say about us and who we are, and the elative Assumption that art and the sublime mysteries of existence inspire within us. Magic and the mundane converse throughout the book, usually twisted together in the same series of lines.
The beauty of The Assumption, as with all his work prior to this piece, is that it resonates successfully both intellectually and melodically. This monstrously ambitious work, most of which is a crown of crowns of sonnets (yes, that’s 49 interlinked poems, folks!), delivers successfully on both levels, as Dietrich’s work always does. The mega-crown (is there even a term for such an endeavor?) is prefaced by a standard crown, entitled “The Engineer,” which is excerpted at the beginning of this article. This initial crown is dedicated to James Doohan, the ship’s engineer James Scott (Scotty!), in the original series of Star Trek.
The intellectual appeal of Dietrich’s work can be observed immediately in an initial reading by the obvious depth of his work. As the reader makes her way through the piece, she notices the dense fauna of references she must traverse—references to everything from a pantheon of mythologies and religions to X-Files to Orson Wells’s panic-inducing performance of “War of the Worlds”—to the point that the reader may sometimes feel, like she does when exploring Eliot, that she MUST be missing something, that even as she reads the first (or second) time that she will need to go back and explore again. He weaves layers into a string of words, and a few lines can elicit a mountain of research into his references. His Crackpot, for example, says in the sixth sonnet: “The origin/ of the Qa’aba stone, say, or Phaëthon’s flaming trip,// are mooned, helmeted heads of Mayan mortuary/ art—one wonders which is whose. Ours? Theirs?” This depth makes Dietrich’s work worth re-reading, diving into, and deconstructing. Dietrich tantalizes the reader with these images as they shimmer through Indra’s web of words, and you always feel as if there’s more to reach for.
But if you instead have the good fortune to hear Dietrich’s work first, the sheer musicality of the writing will resonate like a Stradivarius plucked in the cavern of a cathedral (listen for yourself: Behind the Shutters.wma. More are available at his website, bryandietrich.com, under “Sound Files”). Even reading it out loud or in one’s mind brings the words alive in melodic measure, such as when he speaks with Orson Welles’s voice in the crown entitled “The Magician,” in which Welles reflects on the triumphal prank of his 1939 radio performance of “War of the Worlds.” The sheer rhythm of the words beats in the reader’s chest, reiterating the depth of the statement:
…Yes, I provided gopher wood
and hammer, hope, apocalyptic yammer. Dumb
beasts, we always know we’ll leave behind our lot.
Truth is, no matter if we hang, drown, flee,
someone’s box awaits us, always, false wall down.
Where the first level of experience is intellectual, the second is guttural, primal. The second level completes the first and helps to round out the depth and glory of Dietrich’s poetry. If there was just one aspect to Dietrich’s work—if it was just brilliant on an intellectual level without its musical overtone or just musical with no depth—it wouldn’t have the power it manages with each stanza.
The book’s final poem, “The Heat Death of the Universe,” also stands alone and tells the story of the crisis Dietrich encountered when, as a child, he discovered evolution and the eventual catastrophic death of the universe in a book from the library in the back of his classroom.
Funny, but Fenrir never struck me
like this, that quaint Nordic myth of how
it all might end in snow—slow, zero-laden
stasis. The great wolf presiding over
what couldn’t last with this last blast of feral
breath, his great howl, growl by growl growing
silent as ice between here and the end
of the world. But this. This was dangerous.
In this last poem, Dietrich manages to capture that initial, horrifying moment that most of us face as children—that moment when we realize that everything we know and love is finite. Whether it ends with a bang or a whisper, it will inevitably end. That discovery is the beginning of the end of innocence.
I couldn’t say that The Assumption is my favorite of Dietrich’s work. While I think it speaks successfully to the topic, its subject matter is more emotionally removed than some of his more recent books (such as Universal Monsters and Prime Directive), and I feel like it suffers somewhat as a result. Dietrich does his best work when he aches artfully. This piece presents the same high quality and one can expect from any of Dietrich’s poetry, but it felt more sterile than some of his other work. It’s solid and beautifully constructed, but for me, The Assumption just doesn’t have the resonance of some of his other more recent collections. I like poetry to rip me apart and put me back together again (or, in some cases, just leave me there, bleeding and all mushy), and while Dietrich’s work has achieved his typical depth, I don’t come away from this work in the same type of awe I experienced from his prior books. I still enjoy it intellectually, and there’s no doubt that it is successful on an artistic and linguistic level, but I never really came to that point where the highwayman attacks, takes all my stuff, and rips me to pieces (though “The Heat Death of the Universe” came closest to achieving this end).
But with that being said, I still feel as if it would be mistake for a reader to miss out on the opportunity to read and experience this collection. Four words: A CROWN OF CROWNS. Seriously mind-boggling and must be read to be believed. Only someone half-crazy like Dietrich could sit down and think, “I know what I haven’t tried yet…!” Talk about new frontiers! And the piece is still startling in its beauty. Dietrich sets the bar high, and he still manages to reach it with The Assumption. Read this, be baffled and astonished, then go back through his other work, and you won’t need to ask Scotty to beam you up—Dietrich will happily do it for you.