Tag Archives: Dennis Schmitz

Dennis Schmitz’s “The California Phrasebook”

Dennis Schmitz’s poem “The California Phrasebook” has one of those similes in the first stanza that will make you forever look at an everyday object differently, in this case stop lights:

West of the Sierras where
the Central Valley drifts on its crusts of almond
orchards, the fields
die in a holiday accident,
the freeways snapping
back in the dust like severed
arteries while the accomplished
doctor of silence stitches the evening
closed with stoplights which
never hold.

The doctor of silence; stoplights which never hold; the fields dying in a holiday accident — I mean, wow! And this opening California-as-corporeal image is only the beginning of a whole string of images which illuminate how you can look at something regular from another perspective, a perspective expanded, made both immediately recognizable and strange, and complicated.

Schmitz’s poems, at least in the collection I have (which is About Night, his 1993 Selected and New collection) consistently serve up an thoroughly vivid image and then swerve with it to somewhere not weird exactly, not gothic exactly, but somewhere that borders all the dark and twisty places. The line breaks are caesuras of a big breath to finish out the thought, of emphasis in the rhythm of a master storyteller who’s telling the story by looking at what you’d say are all the wrong/tangential details, but there the whole scene anyway, the whole main point of the story told anyway.

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