Bryan Dietrich’s 2011 collection, The Assumption (WordFarm, 2011), could just as easily have been called The Book of Wonder. Through the volume’s seven characters, each of whom speaks in the form of seven linked sonnets, Dietrich clearly evokes a collective desire for clarity. The speakers toss out words like search, seek, struggle, wrestle, hunger, wander, reach, and trek as they strive for illumination, or perhaps voice frustration at the knowledge that clarity will never come.
This language of search and wonderment may also serve to express an utter awe for reality, or for the sheer vastness of the unknown, or even for the ability to be in utter awe. The book’s introductory section, “The Engineer,” is the collection’s only sequence not coming from the first-person singular perspective: rather, it’s from that of a “we,” and what we seek (we “orphans,” we “spores”), it attests, is that very Engineer-figure: “We want for Father, shadow. Even Hook / would do. Some captain, any Captain.” The speaker, in this nod to Whitman, might just as well have invoked Kirk as Hook. The section, notably, is dedicated to the memory of James Doohan, the Scotty of Star Trek fame. Also, in the acknowledgments Dietrich thanks U.S. Spaceways for allowing the second sonnet of this series “to travel with Scotty into space” in 2007.
I’m not sure I am quite a believer there––or, rather, that I really get it. Which brings up another admission, concerning an assumption I carried with me into this reading voyage. As one who tends to shy away from stuff that’s sciencey, spacey, and/or sonnety, I had preemptively determined this book would be beyond my reach and thus Not For Me.
However, once I stopped obsessing about syllables per line, and rhyme patterns, and began recognizing that Dietrich was creatively dealing here with some universal themes and common human struggles, I was much more on board. Honest expressions of wonder or doubt are ultimately redeeming for readers who, like me, may find some of Dietrich’s more erudite and celestial language and content distancing.
The collection’s second and central section, titled “The Assumption: A Crown of Crowns,” begins with “The Skeptic,” who serves as a sort of immediate counterpoint to the Captain-bent speaker of “The Engineer” and asks, “Why go looking?” Why even bother? this speaker seems to say. Why trouble the finite mind with eternal mysteries?
Dietrich’s skeptic also suggests that supernatural explanations are too quickly assigned to what might be accounted for just as easily, and perhaps much more logically, as natural phenomena: “We deify implications— / hemorrhagic fever, cattle mutilations— / making disease design, prophet, profiteer.” Such views are shared later by “The Colonel,” who wonders what can really ever be gleaned when “At times the evidence / seems paltry, desultory, poetic piddle / in a vast, pedantic pool of nonsense.” Yet unlike the Skeptic, the Colonel quickly admits there are days when “I lie in bed, / visions of visitation dancing in my head,” before proceeding to imagine what might have happened to “the fifteen flyers of Flight 19” who disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle, and what it must have been like for the men who went missing.
It’s an exercise not only in speculation and imagination, but also, perhaps more importantly, in empathy. It’s also an example of something else I have difficulty accepting in this book. The Colonel’s voice, to my mind, sounds less like a colonel’s voice than like that of the collection’s other speakers—narrators who often feel less like individual, distinguishable characters and more like the language of a writer writing poetry.
This writer is, yes, clearly masterful, eloquent and clever in his composition of verse—but would a troubled veteran be likely to speak of “dreaming beneath polydactyl caress,” or load his sentences with the slick alliteration and assonance of “vast latticework of lack”? Possible, perhaps. But I’m a little skeptical. Then again, there was a point where the language seemed especially overburdened and technical – in one stanza the speaker managed, for instance, to drop the words peroration, nictitation, Ameslan, succubus, and Nephilim—before it dawned on me that it was “The Crackpot” talking.
Moments like this when the authorial voice works in tandem with the characters allows the language to shine, as opposed to outshine the message. Also, I suppose I wouldn’t have a favorite section—“The Writer”—if that character’s language didn’t seem effective and mostly believable, as in this tranquil childhood recollection:
. . . I crawled,
small but vast with questions, into the back
window of my family’s Ford Torino
where my sisters packed the nooks and cracks
It’s this state of mind—“vast with questions”—that acts as the driving force behind these poems. It’s the state of being, Dietrich tells us, that ultimately lends our lives significance. In the words of a Tom Stoppard quote that serves as the collection’s epigraph, “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.” Or, in the words of “The Engineer”: “This. Manic, organic, immaculate, / our conception, our long lust for cause, / this need, perhaps greed, for eternal laws.” The search for what’s out there will continue, then, daunting as it may be, fruitless as it may prove. But we’d be fools, states “The Magician,” to not at least seek, speculate:
Is it any wonder that we’ve sought to box
our God between reels, that we’ve looked for each
next-best messiah in the dark? No director,
no writer worth a damn ever let that urge
Dietrich, for certain, is no such writer content to let the urge for speculation rest. Instead, he seems to proclaim that belief should not be born of blind acceptance, but rather in wrestling, in confrontation: “in loving, in letting fly, in letting go, / in calling the infinite out for a belly brawl”; “in struggle, that long crawl // to the edge of what I’ll never understand” (“The Writer”). We are left, finally, with the testimony of Dietrich’s final character, “The Believer,” who begins by declaring, “Faith got me / here. Now, how should it take me away?” The question serves not to establish certainties but to open up debate and discussion.
This urge for companionship along the path of questioning emerges later in the poem as well: “I gave others reason to believe / their many assumptions, discovered / also I wasn’t alone.” Here, Dietrich encapsulates what might just be the best reason for venturing out at all, and indeed, even, for living: the discovery of the others with whom one journeys.
Jeff Tigchelaar is a former newspaper reporter, editor, and stay-at-home dad. His poems have appeared in journals including North American Review, Pleiades, and LIT, and anthologies such as Verse Daily, Best New Poets, and New Poetry from the Midwest. Jeff's work received a grant from the Ohio Arts Council. His book, Certain Streets at an Uncertain Hour, was published in 2015 (Woodley Press). jefftigchelaar.weebly.com
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