Dahlen, Beverly

views updated

DAHLEN, Beverly

Nationality: American. Address: 15 Mirabel Avenue, San Francisco, California 94110.



Out of the Third. San Francisco, Momo's Press, 1974.

A Letter at Easter: To George Stanley. Emeryville, California, Effie's Press, 1976.

The Egyptian Poems. Berkeley, California, Hipparchia Press, 1983.

A Reading (1–7). San Francisco, Momo's Press, 1985.

A Reading (11–17). Elmwood, Connecticut, Poets and Poets Press, 1989.

A Reading (8–10). Tucson, Arizona, Chax Press, 1992.


Critical Studies: "For the Body Which Deepens in Silence: The Early Works of Beverly Dahlen" by Mark Linenthal, in Ironwood (Tucson, Arizona), 14(1), Spring 1986; Skirting the Subject: Pursuing Language in the Works of Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin, Beverly Dahlen (dissertation) by Alan Shima, Uppsala, Sweden, Uppsala University, 1993.

*  *  *

Though often included in that large and varied body referred to as language poetry, the poetry of Beverly Dahlen has consistently distinguished itself by its technical resourcefulness, its vigorous intimacy, and the coherence and development of its ambitious project. Dahlen's talents as a poet are considerable, and the menace and lyricism of these lines from A Reading (1–7) are exemplary: "in the myth of the unicorn the lady collaborates. she, lovely, is working for / the enemy, a spy, a trap, a snare. a man's lady. / she comes on the scene. of / course the unicorn is innocent, the child's body, slain. for her sake." The very seduction of such lyricism, however, and indeed the capacity of language itself to impose a meaning upon an experience, to reduce the subject to a voice, and to persuade form from the formless evoke an apprehension in Dahlen through which all her work is refracted ("this is talk. talk is cheap"). Concurrent with this apprehension of language, however, is the recognition that the power of speech to create meaning has been an exclusively male possession. Throughout Dahlen's work we find women choked, gagged, bruised about the throat, with mouths bloody or dry and empty of words. "Gesture," the first poem in her first book, Out of the Third, presents us with a mannerism the speaker has acquired from her mother:

   I am trying to remember
   what she
   was afraid to say
   all those
   years, fingers folded
   against her mouth,
   head turned away.

Out of the Third is a book concerned with origins. There is the migration of the poet's family to the West Coast, which left behind "The Great Plains a burial mound. / The ditched bodies of women / and Indians." There is also a migration in language, a searching and a leaving behind. Dahlen asserts, almost haltingly,

   I am trying
   to learn
   to speak
   the American language

Though she acknowledges that "this is my mother tongue / this is my mother's tongue," the poet cannot accept it the way it has been prepared: "… roasted / sliced fan-shaped / she calls it flank steak." It is a pathetic figure, a tongue that misrepresents itself, and Dahlen concludes, "I know it's heart / I won't eat it." "The Occupation," a powerful poem that tells of the death of the poet's grandmother, also confronts this numbing speech: "My father at home naming all the vegetables / growing in his garden," and "No one says the word dying." Language is itself an occupying force, keeping "everything in order. / Eating and dying":

   How they talk. She passed away.
   Gone in the rainy air.

To engage this language, both as everyday speech and as a poetic tradition, to counter the language that trivializes experience and attempts to silence women, is perceived as a political imperative: "I will make a voice. / It will be alone. You will hear it all night long falling away / towards the west. It will carry you." The making of this voice, however, the identification of its source and the choice of its texture, provides the problem that energizes much of Dahlen's work, and indeed this very question has become a touchstone for critics concerned to differentiate among language poets as a group. For Dahlen language is a thing that endlessly recedes. A Reading (1–7) commences with the words "before that and before that. everything in a line." Yet she does not conclude from this that language is the limit of consciousness. With Julia Kristeva, Dahlen understands language to signify an absence. The following is from Out of the Third:

   Beginning at the skin
   I work my way inward along the branches
   looking for the one that leads to the ground.
   I have been out here a long time now.

Dahlen's poetry, then, is most compelling as an intensely personal search for this "ground." In A Letter at Easter: To George Stanley, Dahlen finds the terms for such a search in an intimate correspondence that is liberating in the imaginative scope it affords but frustrating in its exclusion from the "real world": "This old mothering split. The crack of doom in which / we speak to each other." In The Egyptian Poems this split becomes wider but to luminous effect. Here the poetry is compact, calm with a sense of its own power, the rhythm of its stanzas giving a sense of incantation. The gods have been invoked, and through poetry their attributes may be incorporated:

   Eat the heart, the leg, the thigh,
   all the parts. Take into the darkness of your mouth
   this eye. It will be enough light.

It seems that the ground has been achieved, or at least the means to speak it and to see it, with the eye in the mouth now the same thing, have been. In her three later books, each entitled A Reading, Dahlen explores experience with a language that generates possibilities, that invites rather than establishes meaning. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis has noted in her excellent essay on Dahlen, the poetry of A Reading works metonymically to frustrate closure and encourage multiple readings. It resists participation in the reflex repressions that normally accompany all acts of language: "that's where the wind comes, for wind read calm, and the darkness, and for / darkness read light. that's where she is one or another so must be both. / the murdered or murderer."

The three volumes of A Reading are impressive, perhaps essential, works of postmodern poetry. Written in a form that combines the journal with the long poem, released from the constraints of stanza and line, given instead to a constantly rearranging lyricism, and cast with a truly multivocal feminist subject, this poetry is Dahlen's invitation to the reader to join her in learning to speak the American language.

—James Caton