Dacey, Philip

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DACEY, Philip

Nationality: American. Born: St. Louis, Missouri, 9 May 1939. Education: St. Louis University, B.A. 1961; Stanford University, California, M.A 1967; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1970. Family: Married Florence Chard in 1963 (divorced 1986); two sons and one daughter. Career: U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Nigeria, 1963–65; instructor in English, University of Missouri, St. Louis, 1967–68. Since 1970 member of the department of English, Southwest State University, Marshall, Minnesota. Distinguished writerin-residence, Wichita State University, Kansas, 1985; distinguished visiting writer, University of Idaho, 1999. Editor, Crazy House, 1971–76. Awards: Woodrow Wilson fellowship, 1961; New York YM-YWHA Discovery award, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1975, 1980; Minnesota State Arts Board fellowship, 1975, 1983; Bush Foundation fellowship, 1977; Loft-McKnight fellowship, 1984; Fulbright lectureship, 1988. Address: 2250 Co. Rd. 25, Lynd, Minnesota 56157, U.S.A.



The Beast with Two Backs. Milwaukee, Gunrunner Press, 1969.

Fist, Sweet Giraffe, The Lion, Snake, and Owl. Poquoson, Virginia, Back Door Press, 1970.

Four Nudes. Milwaukee, Morgan Press, 1971.

How I Escaped from the Labyrinth and Other Poems. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1977.

The Boy under the Bed. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

The Condom Poems. Marshall, Minnesota, Ox Head Press, 1979.

Gerard Manley Hopkins Meets Walt Whitman in Heaven and Other Poems. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Penmaen Press, 1982.

Fives. Peoria, Illinois, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1984.

The Man with Red Suspenders. Minneapolis, Milkweed, 1986.

The Condom Poems II. Peoria, Illinois, Spoon River Poetry Press. 1989.

Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Notes of an Ancient Chinese Poet. Bemidji, Minnesota, Loonfeather ress, 1995.

What's Empty Weighs the Most: 24 Sonnets. Elgin, Illinois, Black Dirt Press, 1997.

The Deathbed Playboy. Spokane, Eastern Washington University Press, 1999.

The Paramour of the Moving Air. Princeton, Quarterly Review of Literature, 1999.


Editor, with Gerald M. Knoll, I Love You All Day: It Is That Simple. St. Meinrad, Indiana, Abbey Press, 1970.

Editor, with David Jaus, Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms. New York, Harper, 1986.


Manuscript Collection: Harry Ranson Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

Critical Studies: By Dabney Stuart, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), winter 1971; David Jauss, in Great River Review (Minneapolis), fall 1977; Vernon Young, in Hudson Review (New York), December 1977; Leonard Nathan, in Parnassus (New York), fall/ winter 1978; Joseph B. Wagner, in Tar River Poetry (Greenville, North Carolina), spring 1979; interview, in Voices (Marshall, Minnesota), April-May 1979; Philip Jason, in Poet Lore (Boston), fall 1979 and winter 1981–82; Bob Fauteux, in Minnesota Daily (Minneapolis), 16 June 1981; Barton Sutter, in Minneapolis Tribune, 8 May 1983; Orval Lund, in Great River Review (Minneapolis), fall 1986; James Bertolino, in Bellingham Review (Bellingham, Washington), spring 1987; Frank Allen, in American Book Review, August 1992; Literary Review, winter 1995.

Philip Dacey comments:

As a young boy I dreamed of being a novelist—in vain, as a few sorry half-attempts later indicated. In my mid-twenties, largely at sea as to my career and goals, I was amazed to find myself writing poems (poetry never was a favorite literary genre of mine), then more poems and in time growing into a practicing professional poet. Poetry came unbidden into my life and gave it shape, meaning, direction. I am deeply grateful to it. I have since then, about twenty-five years ago, tried to serve the art well and develop as best I could whatever gift for it I have. I hope to have another twenty-five years to further my commitment and partially repay poetry for all it has given me.

*  *  *

Philip Dacey's collections provide a compendium of poetic delights: wit, wisdom, and the full spectrum of feeling. He is equally at home in the natural world and in the realm of meditation. His language may consist of spare, flat diction or involve rich, flowing imagery, but it is always right, always evocative of a sensibility and a moment.

How I Escaped from the Labyrinth and Other Poems is too accomplished to be labeled a first volume. Dacey's poems have a way of lingering. They haunt with their gentleness, lift with their lightness. How much he packs into his one-line poem "Thumb" ("The odd, friendless boy raised by four aunts"). How imaginatively he fashions, then exploits, the metaphor of pornography in "Porno Love" to explore the elements of artistic and personal risk: "I've been exposing my genitals / in poems for a long time now, / at least when they're good." It is by risking that the artist (the lover) declares, "I trust you." Thus, we see "how certain private parts / made vulnerable / give greatest pleasure / in a consummation / of good will." In "Learning to Swim in Mid-Life" the speaker is able at last to give himself to water (to woman, to others, ultimately to himself): "So I enter you / and you keep me up, / longer than I have / ever expected." The swimmer now feels that "for once it would be easy / to carry myself. / With no strain, / I could give myself / to others. / I would say, Here, / take me. It would be that simple." By themselves his hands "are taking / what they need / to pull me forward." At last "I am wet / with your wetness."

The Boy under the Bed considers a group of themes that are personal and universal: the tension between self-preservation and one's need for others; the struggle to maintain love against the onslaught of time; the revelation of freedom deriving from one's ability to have faith. "The Door Prohibited" dramatizes life as a series of doors and rooms. If one is tempted to open doors, there is also the need to keep at least one door closed. "The Orgy" masterfully conveys sexual innuendo in simple diction as it underscores the notso-simple questions of whether and when to risk a new experience: "What would we do / without the line / that runs between / your piece and mine?" With regret the speaker declines the invitation ("Better stay home / in certain nooks"), but his sense of lost opportunity is offset by the arrival of another invitation. Life is rich in possibilities.

"Watching a Movie in a Foreign Language without Subtitles" captures the speaker's sense of displacement, alienation, and failed communication. The poem opens with the lines "For years now, you have starred / In your own foreign movie." A family man, the "I" sadly realizes that he now comprehends strangers better than his own wife and children. In "The Last Straw" the speaker's marriage has collapsed: "One minute the camel was standing there, / then it was not. I said it was her / straw that did it, she said it was mine. / The fact is, if any one / of all those previous straws had been withheld, / the camel would not now be dead. / So who can assign responsibility?" Dacey breathes life into a cliché through a combination of bold, exact metaphor and colloquial, connotative language.

Not only does Dacey craft poems that breathe free of artifice, but he also buoys the spirit as he dramatizes how faith and self-trust are ultimately the same. In "Levitation" the speaker is in love with the magician's assistant and her "faith in air." After she tells him, "You have nothing to rely on," she instructs him to "go higher / higher." Dacey does just that. In "The Runner" he becomes thinner, refines himself; his bones surface, "coming forward to meet / the eye. Or slowly developing like / a picture in a darkroom or the features / of a darkened room to a would-be sleeper. / The flesh was all a lie. The bones were true / and now were rising as he ran." Death and the speaker run together as partners, "the two of them. The one he'd come to meet / beside him. That shadow, scything the flowers / and leaving them intact." As he hears the surprising off-rhyme of "health and death," the shadow finally becomes "a lover. And he / had come to rendezvous." Poems like "Proofreading" and "The Way It Happens" develop and reinforce this willingness to trust, this giving over that makes possible the acts of transcendence and transformation.

Gerard Manley Hopkins Meets Walt Whitman in Heaven and Other Poems consists of a sequence based on the historical and imagined life of the British poet. Dacey is marvelous in re-creating moments and circumstances related to Hopkins's life. Employing Hopkins's own vocabulary and sprung rhythm, he succeeds not only in making accessible but also in resurrecting Hopkins's sensibility for the reader. The title poem, a combination painting and stage play, depicts heaven as a swimming hole where the two poets meet, grapple, and join at last to strike an appropriately Whitmanesque pose.

In Fives and The Man with Red Suspenders Dacey continues his exploration of identity, process, and relationship. Highly structured (five sections of five poems, each poem in five cinquains), Fives focuses on growth and completion. Dedicated to the daughter "who made us five," the book's opening poem has the speaker-poet musing on the various names assigned him, how name and self become each other. "Not Correcting His Name Misspelled on the Mailing Label" concludes with his longing to be called "Cyaed": "a Welsh verse form / impossible to pronounce, / a near forgotten / arrangement of sounds / some few mouths can enjoy." The name, like the self, is capable of transformations; out of what is given, a man creates his being. In Dacey's poems transformation and faith make each other possible, as in "The Pianist," where "one thing led to another / not thing. The music couldn't be seen, / even when found. He had to believe in it / like any ghost / to give himself a past, / that is, a future." His sense of life's connectedness and flow appears in "Arriving Late for a Movie": "If you miss the beginning, / you miss the end. / The end is in the beginning." Dacey reminds us that life and love will not be divided or compartmentalized. In "Mobius" he presents "our love / with no inside or outside / or no clear / line dividing so." Always the self continues its journey, evolving, ascending, as in "The Body," which "… always / rights itself." Kept on track by "the gyroscope / of the spirit / … / Even in death / the body flourishes, /… / the limbs flailing / … / but actually / the body's flying." Thus, going down is arising, and the dance of death is paradoxically the dance of freedom. Dacey's poems are rich in paradox and surprise. Fives concludes with the self's need to yield in order to transform itself into something more. One must be willing to get "down on all fours" with one's "forehead / touching the earth." As described in "The Position," by being "open / to attack / or love," one may discover "a larger number— / or one / just like him— / into which he can go / and leave nothing over." Transcendence comes with giving over to another as large as, or larger than, oneself.

Perhaps Dacey's penchant for paradox, coupled with his highly distinct voice and vision, reveals him to be a twentieth-century transcendentalist, a secular priest finding his own way. In The Man with Red Suspenders Dacey again brings together Hopkins and Whitman, two men of faith but two men of widely differing sensibilities. These men are Dacey's mentors and, in a way, the poles of his poetic being. Between them they generate the current of imagery that flows from Dacey. Seeming opposites are necessary to complete the circuit, to achieve wholeness.

Being open to the other, without or within, is risky business. In "The Hitchhiker" the driver is warned, "I am dangerous. / I could change your life." To travel and to grow requires keeping open, as in "Whitman's Answering Service," which ends with "remember, the only phone company / is yourself." If one tries to overcontrol one's life, to lock every drawer, as in "The Office Manager Locking Up," then "the silence says / murder / and order / as if they were one word." Hence, the manager locks himself up. But for the poet—and for Hopkins and Whitman—life is a gift. "Placating the Gods" concludes, "Spend the day / finding yourself. / Say thank you." In "The Rules" it is "… be glad / You got what you got." Loving this life means having faith, whose signs are everywhere, as in "Pac-Man," which tells us that "when you die, / … / transformation is taking place, / which means eyes set free / to float, and see." Like our own hopes for ascension and transfiguration, the creatures in "The Fish in the Attic" mysteriously swim and fly overhead, "making an untranslatable / pattern amidst / what you have discarded / or do not know you need yet." Like us they wait just below the ice-covered roof "for a fisherman to cut the hole / they can escape through." Even, perhaps especially, the moment of impending death brings a flood of self-awareness and transcendence, as in "The Safe," which hurtles downward toward the speaker, who sees "the great / black open womb bearing down, passionate / to a fault." He sees, mirrored, his own creative interior, "wombish" too, "rising to meet in an open rush, / its perfect mate." Beholding his inner wealth, his glory, he feels that it is "a privilege to die like that, / the victim of treasure, inside and out." The self's treasure, Dacey assures us, is virtually inexhaustible. Because Dacey's poems reveal the godhead within, they achieve transcendence and are themselves acts of faith.

With his book Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory, Dacey secures his place as a major voice in contemporary poetry. This award-winning volume continues Dacey's quixotic journey in the realms of matter and imagination. While the poet repeatedly pokes fun at the Roman Catholic tradition that no longer binds him, he remains a serious searcher for faith. Dacey arranges his material in three sections, a personal trinity that presents the hero-poet's own life path and quest.

In the first section, "On Donk's Row," Dacey acknowledges and explores contributions and connections involving various family members, starting with his grandfather who, the speaker "… love[s] to say / … mined for coal / in southern Illinois, / I with my inkstained / fingers that dig / and dig in air / for air." Mother and father are here, too, along with Whitman. In the imagined narrative "Thomas Eakins: The Secret Whitman Sitting," the artist reflects on the sleeping poet-subject: "… I had seen that posture before. / That slump. Almost as if I had created it. / And then I remembered: I had. It was my Christ's. / Twice crucified. / / The critics bled him, too, / for being first a man, no god, unless / all men and women were equally gods."

In the second section, "Positively No," the poet moves forward to test and claim his identity. Learning to listen even more attentively, he imagines the colloquy between "the ear and mouth, old cousins / from an old country where words go in and out / like lovers, and two are one, and one— / one listens in order to speak." If loss is inevitable, gratitude for what has been is a positive and appropriate response: "The voices come bearing their own deaths / as gifts, and the hand of the ear / says thank you, by opening like a grave."

"In Yugoslavia: Two Islands and a Hill" is the centerpiece of this section, a trilogy in which the second poem, "Pilgrimage to Medugorje," speaks to the quest for faith most directly. The poet visits a remote village where local children claim to have seen the Virgin Mary and observes of the crowd, "… It was Times Square / with a halo, milling pilgrims everywhere, / and Mass a sellout, S.R.O." The speaker narrates with wry irony:

   I didn't stay but went instead to find
   the place where six teenagers lost their minds
   and hearts to God. I saw two arrowed signs:
   "This Way to the Hill of Apparitions,"
   "This Way to the Toilets." And I, I took
   the way less traveled by, no doubt, to hike
   the hill where Holy Mary came, they say.

The speaker climbs and looks but does not have a religious vision: "… Out of a fine mist, / nothing appeared to me, who craved a sign, / except a begging dog, all skin and bone, / whose head I scratched." Thus, "… I climbed back down, / my faith unrenewed. I hadn't seen one / miracle, unless everything was it." This, of course, is the point, but it would not be Dacey without something also tangible, and so the poem concludes, "… And, oh / yes, while at Medugorje, looking for truth, / I had some great fried chicken at a booth." The poet says no to the traditional—the institutional—answers, finding his own instead. There is gratitude and reverence for being, his own as well as all that exists about him.

There also is a fierce determination to protect and nurture the hard-won and unique self. Like poems, the self is its own reason for being and deserving of valuation. The speaker-poet in "Translated from the" lives in an oppressive culture and says defyingly,

   … I love my poems because
   they are not published.
   To live like outlaws
   is their success.
   They are my secret life,
   illegal, punishable
   not publishable, a threat
   to whom they may concern.

Any institution—sacred or secular—no matter how benevolent, poses a threat to the individual life, which by definition is creative and itself a work of art.

Creating is the supreme act of celebration. The poet is both attendant priest and deity, bringing artifacts into being and thereby engaging in the ongoing process of creating the self. It is divine work by which the artist elevates himself—and perhaps his audience. Hell, on the other hand, is doing the same task over and over for money, crucifying the self to keep the body alive. In "The Feet Man," the poem from which the collection's title is derived, the speaker's job is to nail "Jesus' feet to the cross on the / assembly line," which translates into striking those nails "… more than two thousand times / a day."

The real task, for the individual and the artist, is to become oneself, difficult and painful as the process must be: "The point is / you can't fool God. / The point is / you can't fool yourself" ("The Sacrifice"). One lets go of the old ways, the old relationships, only to find them articulated and manifested in new forms and experiences. The stripper in a bar, moving to Pachelbel's canon "… performed it, too, / each move as practiced as a halfback's fake / or priest's elevation of the Host at Mass." The speaker "… felt I could have been in church, albeit / a church like none my mother took me to," and, oh, that stripper, "… once she touched her breasts and crotch with what / seemed to me, in my enthusiasm, / liturgical significance. Ah, men!" ("Strip Pachelbel"). Becoming oneself requires the freedom to say no, as in "Not Answering the Telephone." One declines the world's invitations and distractions in order to continue a particular activity, affirming thereby the self's high priority.

When the price of individuation seems unbearably high, in the sundering of the dearest ties, as in the loss of joint custody of children in a divorce judgment, a person is not entirely alone if he can remain open and trusting. In "Vigil Strange" the speaker, crushed and stunned as is any casualty of the marital wars, gropes for comfort in Leaves of Grass and finds it in the words of Whitman, the most compassionate of nurses:

   and the dream has long persisted of a ghost
   brooding over me that night, the low cloud
   of his beard like weather, universal breath,
   all my air a great mothering body of words.

The last section—"The Stories They Told"—finds the poet returning from his dangerous but life-creating journey to tell of his discoveries. In "Lies" the poet explores the relationship between art and truth; addressing his neighbor Arthur, who only likes "movies that really happened," the poet begins, "I know how it is, Art." The truth that what art tells is truer than truth, made up as it is of the things of the world, selected, heightened, rearranged, imagined, all to take us deeper into that mine where nuggets abound. "Jill, Afterward" tells how the girl's boyfriend had nothing in his pail, despite his story to the contrary. But since she went up the hill with him to see "… whether / He had anything in his pants," she learned to her chagrin that "… damn, too, if his pants weren't full." She adds that "I've got these kids to prove that story." Imagination is potent and fertile in ways that never fail to surprise.

The final poem is "Endpapers," which reminds us that at the end of every tale, lived or written, is the blank page: "At the end of every storybook, it snows. / The white endpaper has the final word." Rather than this being the blank face of dismay, emptiness, or ambiguity, however, it becomes a joke for the poet-speaker and his real-life daughter. Truth and art always and forever dance.

Two more books of poems, The Paramour of the Moving Air and The Deathbed Playboy, were published in 1999. Running like a rich river through Paramour is Dacey's love affair with language. For the poet language is living and palpable, always moving, the flow of music the self makes in response to the symphony of the world. Looking back to his origins in the first poem ("Inheriting the Gift of Blarney"), he has come to learn that "I grew up inside the word, / though I did not know it then. / My place was green with vowels, / and waves against the cliffs of Moher / were consonants." The sheer act of writing words on paper is a rapture, as the poet muses in "The Lost Art" (of penmanship): "It must have been like love / the hand moving with just the right / pressure and angle, / following the contours / of a name, a long body of names."

The second section, "A Little Night Music," continues the focus on language, sometimes through analogy, sometimes offhand and indirectly, but it is always present. Consider "Amherst with Fries" in which, after giving his order and hearing the bored cashier in a Massachusetts Burger King wonder ("at least a little") at "how 'Whopper' and 'water' sound alike,'" the speaker reminds us

   … that language is always
   and in any state the special of the day,
   and that although few people full-rhyme
   all people off-rhyme, that any is more at home
   with any other, or should be, then either is
   with Styrofoam cups or a plastic tray.

At any moment the miracle of language can leap into view, as evidenced here by the minimum-wage cashier with her "surprising—even to her, I bet— / regard for what daily commercial use / has reduced to near invisibility: our life- / giving diet of vowel and consonant cluster." And so, like this young woman mostly going through the motions of a mindless job, any of us is capable of

   playing the role of an intelligent ear,
   a kind of subversive rational weapon,
   a uniformed and smiling stealth poet,
   listening with great discrimination
   as a line forms all day in front of her.

Dacey is indeed wedded to language. Poetry for him is much more than a medium; it is the water of life, the air we breathe, and the most significant other, the muse as the beloved.

Published almost simultaneously with Paramour, The Deathbed Playboy opens with "Recorded Message," a poem that sets the tone and subject matter for much of what follows—a wryly serious look at contemporary American culture and what it means to be an individual living in it. Taking up a familiar experience, "Recorded Message" provocatively dramatizes how communication has become trivialized and depersonalized, how language has become commercialized in a techno-business culture. And then the poems immediately following display language's emotive power as Dacey reflects upon experiences involving family members and does so lovingly and with a clarity and control that evoke deep and resonant feelings from the reader: Dacey's brother at the dying sister's bedside during her last months; his ninety-year-old father remembering how, newly divorced and living in a tiny rented room, he would rub noses with the young poet-to-be during Friday night stayovers ("Eskimo Joe"). It is dangerous material that could easily bog down in the slough of sentimentality, but for Dacey, with his discipline and surety of language, it does not. As the bonds of familial love connect the poet with his kin, the reader feels drawn into the family circle, welcomed into another branch of his family he did not know was there.

At the same time Dacey weaves in the elements of late twentieth-century America—Candid Camera, Baryshnikov, the Trident II submarine, George Bush and Saddam Hussein—as he muses how "maybe like any modern / I love fragments" ("Reading While Driving"). In the next poem ("For the God Poseidon") Dacey identifies modern man's condition and location as a species "between beliefs / between the knellings of a bell." Dacey's most powerful indictment comes in "The New American Stations of the Cross." Although the poem deserves to be quoted entire, a few excerpts suggest the its concerns: "Jesus' side is pierced / by the dull rhetoric / of presidential candidates, / who drink his blood." "Japan offers to carry / Jesus' cross / at a very attractive interest rate." "Jesus, who carries no cash / in his small loin cloth, / is stripped of his credit cards / which have no limits." "Jesus is nailed to a cross / of wood from an old-growth forest." "Jesus is taken down / from the cross / because 64% of the people / surveyed in a Gallup poll / approve of such action / while only 32% disapprove / and 4% don't know what they think." "Jesus is laid / in a tome / converted from / a defunct / Savings and Loan / vault." "The Supreme Court rules / God is guilty / of reverse discrimination / in letting only a Jew / rise from the dead."

With some half-dozen chapbooks (two of them—Fives and What's Empty Weighs the Most: 24 Sonnets—quite substantial) in addition to his full-length collections in print, Dacey has amassed an impressive body of work. The poet has Whitman's compassion and involvement with human concerns, Dickinson's eccentricity and boldness, and Frost's ear for spoken language that reveals the inner life. Most of all, however, Dacey's poetry is always his own. Laced and leavened with an unsparing wit, along with a spirit of openness and curiosity at what life has to offer and always the willingness to explore, this is poetry of the highest order.

—Carl Lindner