Dubie, Norman (Evans, Jr.)
DUBIE, Norman (Evans, Jr.)
Nationality: American. Born: Barre, Vermont, 10 April 1945. Education: Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 1964–69, B.A. 1969; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1969–71, M.F.A. 1971. Family: Married 1) Francesca Stafford in 1969 (divorced 1973), one daughter;2) Pamela Stewart in 1974 (divorced 1979); 3) Jeannine Savard in 1981. Career: Teaching assistant, 1969–71, and lecturer in creative writing, 1971–74, University of Iowa; assistant professor, Ohio University, Athens, 1974–75. Writer-in-residence, 1975–76, director of the Graduate Writing Program, 1976–77, associate professor, 1978–82, professor, 1982–91, and since 1991 Regents Professor of English, Arizona State University, Tempe. Poetry editor, Iowa Review, 1971–72, and Now, 1973–74. Poetry director, Prison Writers and Artists Workshop, Iowa City, 1973–74. Awards : Bess Hokin prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1976; Guggenheim grant, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1986; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1987. Address: Department of English, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85281, U.S.A.
The Horsehair Sofa. Plainfield, Vermont, Goddard Journal, 1969.
Alehouse Sonnets. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.
Indian Summer. Iowa City, Elizabeth Press, 1974.
The Prayers of the North American Martyrs. New York, Penumbra Press, 1975.
Popham of the New Song and Other Poems. Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1975.
In the Dead of the Night. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.
The Illustrations. New York, Braziller, 1977.
A Thousand Little Things and Other Poems. Omaha, Cummington Press, 1977.
Odalisque in White. Seattle, Porch, 1979.
The City of the Olesha Fruit. New York, Doubleday, 1979.
The Everlastings. New York, Doubleday, 1980.
The Window in the Field. Copenhagen, Razorback Press, 1981.
Selected and New Poems. New York, Norton, 1983.
The Springhouse. New York, Norton, 1986.
Groom Falconer. New York, Norton, 1989.
Radio Sky. New York, Norton, 1991.
The Funeral. Calais, Vermont, Z Press, 1998.*
Manuscript Collection: University of Iowa Special Collections, Iowa City.
Critical Studies: Interview in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), July-August 1978, and November-December 1989; "A Generous Salvation: The Poetry of Norman Dubie" by David St. John, in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1990; "My Dubious Calculus" by William Slattery, in The Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), 52, winter 1994; "Dubie's 'Amen'" by Michele Leavitt, in Explicator (Washington, D.C.), 56(1), fall 1997.* * *
The American poet Norman Dubie has been justifiably praised by his contemporaries and has attracted awards and endowments from the literary establishment. I regard him as possibly the most accomplished practitioner of narrative poetry currently working in the English language, yet he remains unpublished and unrecognized in Britain. The Atlantic pond, it seems, is wider and deeper than it should be.
What so many readers outside the United States have missed is a body of work that is lyrical and documentary, learned and eclectic, determinedly researched, and yet revelatory and epiphanic in a way associated more with the modern short story. In "Elegy to the Sioux" and "The Scrivener's Roses" Dubie has written poems that rank with the best of Lowell and Ginsberg in their power to evoke uniquely American experiences and in their grasp of critical episodes from American history. That having been said, unlike Ginsberg, Lowell, and the confessional poets, Dubie himself remains healthily absent from the poetry. His work is refreshingly distanced from the confines of postwar American confessional poetry; he is more specific than Bly and more accessible than Ashbery. Here there is no Life Studies, no Howl, no Dream Songs. Instead, the consequence of a narrative strategy is to bring characters and events to the foreground and to confirm the "negative capability" of the poet.
"The Scrivener's Roses" has qualities that both perplex and astound. It is a long poem of some 153 lines that weaves apparently unconnected characters and events from the American Civil War into a rich narrative of details and essences. The poem opens with an amputation by a surgeon. The young boy on whom he operates has a sister who works in a paper mill in New England, where
They often said that April snow was a poor man's manure.
Letters written on that paper may, given the war, end up undelivered and discarded in the dead letter office in Washington, D.C., which Herman Melville visits and writes a story about. At this time Sherman's Union troops are pushing further into Confederate Georgia, ravaging people and places as they go:
…At dusk, searching for women, they
Arrive at the churchyard—with bayonets they open the fresh mounds
Where the sisters were hurriedly buried.
… The dancing soldiers are laughing
With the rigid partners in moonlight—you can hear dry bones
Breaking! Some of the women are shaven, one has long red hair.
Their white breasts bouncing in the chill night air …
Dubie is undoubtedly drawn to the bizarre and the macabre, but "The Scrivener's Roses" is also representative of his ability to resolve the darker aspects of human behavior and the human soul. He does this not explicitly but in the very act of making manifest the underlying connections between historical events and personal perceptions. As E.M. Forster insisted, "Only connect." One is left at the end of the poem with a profound sense of unease and confirmation.
In "Elizabeth's War with the Christmas Bear," "The Huts at Esquimaux," "La Pampa," and many other poems, Dubie draws the reader into the lives of people in strange places at significant moments. He skillfully gives voice to others through his dramatic monologues, for example, "The Pennacesse Leper Colony for Women, Cape Cod: 1922," "The Czar's Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals," and "Aubade of the Singer and Sabateur, Marie Triste." Such writing does much to redress the imbalance set up by the preeminence of the confessional mode in contemporary American poetry.
Another central strand in Dubie's work is his reconsideration of the lives of other artists and writers—Chekhov, Proust, Ingmar Bergman, Rodin, the photographers Weston and Brassai, and many more. There are some readers who may regard this as parasitic or irritatingly arch. To me, however, the compelling reenactment of pain and passion in such poems as "Sun and Moon Flowers: Paul Klee, 1879–1940," "After Three Photographs of Brassai," and "The Duchess' Red Shoes" seems to justify the exercise. In any case, his later poems engage more directly with contemporary events, especially the political traumas of South and Central America. There also are poems in which his wife and family appear, though Dubie rarely satisfies the expectations of readers looking for the personal lyric in the tradition that runs from the romantics to Seamus Heaney and Galway Kinnell.
The only misgiving I have concerns Dubie's use of the line and the paragraph break, both of which appear at times quite arbitrary. This, however, may be another example of the problems one encounters when discourses and signifiers have to travel across oceans.
Dubie has constructed a body of work that offers different challenges and distinct rewards. His Selected and New Poems, published when he was in his mid-30s, clearly established him as an original American voice, and his subsequent collections have confirmed him as a poet deserving of an international audience.