Dana, Robert (Patrick)

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DANA, Robert (Patrick)

Nationality: American. Born: Allston, Massachusetts, 2 June 1929. Education: Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, B.A. 1951; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.A. 1954. Military Service: Radioman in U.S. Navy, 1946–48. Family: Married 1) Mary Kowalke in 1951, two daughters and one son; 2) Peg Sellen. Career: Instructor, 1954–58, assistant professor, 1958–62, associate professor, 1962–68, and professor of English, 1968–94, Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa; editor, Hillside Press, 1957–67, and The North American Review, 1964–68, both Mount Vernon; contributing editor, American Poetry Review, 1973–88, New Letters, 1980–83, and since 1991 The North American Review. Awards: Danforth grant, 1959; Rinehart Foundation fellowship, 1960; Ford-ACM grant, 1966; Rainer Maria Rilke prize, 1984; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985, 1993; Delmore Schwartz memorial award, 1989; Carl Sandburg medal, 1994; Pushcart Prize XXI, 1996. Address: 1466 Westview Drive, Coralville, Iowa 52241, U.S.A.



My Glass Brother and Other Poems. Iowa City, Constance Press, 1957.

The Dark Flags of Waking. Iowa City, Qara Press, 1964.

Journeys from the Skin: A Poem in Two Parts. Iowa City, Hundred Pound Press, 1966.

Some Versions of Silence. New York, Norton, 1967.

The Power of the Visible. Chicago, Swallow Press, 1971.

The Watergate Elegy. Chicago, Wine Press, 1973.

Tryptych. Chicago, Wine Press, 1974.

Winter Poems, with Debora Greger and George O'Connell. Lisbon, Iowa, Penumbra, 1977.

In a Fugitive Season. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1979.

On a View of Paradise Ridge from a Rented House. Kendrick, Idaho, Two Magpies Press, 1980.

Keats in Detroit to Byron in California. Privately printed, 1982.

What the Stones Know. Iowa City, Seamark Press, 1984.

Blood Harvest. Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1987.

Starting Out for the Difficult World. New York, Harper, 1987.

What I Think I Know: New & Selected Poems. Chicago, Another Chicago Press, 1991.

Yes, Everything: New Poems. Chicago, Another Chicago Press, 1994.

Hello, Stranger. Tallahassee, Florida, Anhinga Press, 1996.

Summer. Tallahassee, Florida, Anhinga Press, 2000.


Editor, Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1986.

Editor, A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1999.


Bibliography: Voyages to the Inland Sea 3 edited by John Judson, La Crosse, University of Wisconsin Press, 1973.

Critical Studies: "A World that Comes Apart like a Surprise" by Anselm Hollo, in New Letters (Kansas City, Missouri), summer 1973; "From Deep Space: The Poetry of Robert Dana" by Edward Brunner, in The Iowa Review, 22(3), fall 1992.

Robert Dana comments:

I see myself as a poet—I don't believe in poets as prophets, or priests, or even as people of superior intelligence and feeling. Though I'm sure I once did and once in a while still do. Ultimately, I think, I believe what Auden and Cunningham have believed before me—that the poet's only magic is with words. He begins life with a natural gift for handling them and hearing them. He loves them for their sounds, their taste, their soft or their steel feel. And for their enduring strangeness. Each word has, for him, its own perfect story.

Much later, when the poet begins to develop a style, he comes to recognize that style is not just a way of saying things but a way of seeing things. And seeing them with the whole being at once. Poetry is felt thought, Eliot once said. And so it is. But being both at once, it is neither. A poem is an experience of a total kind in which the transitory in our existence passes into permanence.

*  *  *

In ABC of Reading Ezra Pound lists six categories of poets, ending with "starters of crazes." Robert Dana has never started a craze. He is not an inventor either, a poet who creates a brand new process, but he has learned from such poets, assembling and assimilating techniques and poetic strategies so well that he earns a place in Pound's second category—master craftsman.

Dana's first book describes our perishing world as it becomes part of his inner life, an ironic charting of his country's taste for concrete images "Unlikely as Chicago." He skewers Americans' view of nature:

   Pigs blister the hillside …
   Morning may strike us anywhere.

Dana looks for balance in another direction, toward the Tang poets he translates or to

   The grace of simple food …
   … the table wooden as the loneliness of plain fact
   And bread of the moon
   the heart's small loaf.

The tension between the two worlds is sometimes manifest in Dana's silences, and it may occur in the "zag zag zag of sodium lamps / blue across the causeways." In his second book the tension turns toward dreams, becoming metamorphic:

   And I am driving into my own sleep
   of white chickens
   past barnyard harvest of junked cars
   the wind slumps through the empty eyes of cows.

Landscapes begin to flash surrealistically: Los Angeles sloshes into the ocean after nine days of rain, Kennedy is assassinated again, "razors could not cut the rain from the glass." Without reveling in vatic zeal or surreal petulance, however, the poet "whistles under the true sky of his troubles / walking slowly / inside himself," realizing that, regardless of the emotions that flood him, he gains only a measured wisdom:

   I see that I am what I always was
   that ordinary man on his front steps
   bewildered under the bright mess of the heavens
   by the fierce indecipherable language of its stars.

In the books that have followed, Dana has steadily sharpened and broadened this perspective. The voice that now comes from his page is assured in its puzzlement, not distracted even by artifice. "These Days," from What I Think I Know, describes two people fishing on a beach and records their banal conversation until Dana announces candidly, "You're reading a translation. / The beach is empty." He continues with

   I'm swirling
   my wind-chilled whiskey
   in its glass, and watching the sun
   collapse in heaven-fire,
   or wild glory, or whatever
   passes for that these days.

It is bitter, passionate realism, not drunk on nature, self-pity, romanticism, salvation schemes, whiskey, or a dream of poetry.

The poem "Gebra's Story" shows how far Dana has come. Gebra, his guide on an expedition, tells him about Kilimanjaro—"Not the House of God, / just another great stone / in a land of stones"—and about a climb into whiteout conditions:

   … we lost our way
   and couldn't see.
   My tears froze in my eyes.

Gebra has told his icy story in the "suffocating shade" of a desert below the "sacred / mountain of the Masai, / soaring in the filthy heat." Dana sits "amid flies," listening, and when it is over, he says simply, "I believe his story … and you can believe mine." Dana then tells about the prior night on the desert:

   last night, I shat where
   lion shit and jackal.

Again we listen, for the poem is about listening and telling. It is about being in "God's house," lost in the snow or exhausted by dysentery, about

   squatting there without
   benefit of gun
   or prayer,
   under lightning, with sudden, torrential rain
   sluicing my scarred arms in long bright shivers.

We believe his story.

—Edward B. Germain