Ben Doller, Dead Ahead
Publisher: Fence Books
2010, 88 pages, paperback, $16
ben doller's third collection of poetry, Dead Ahead, is a look into a mind completely, and poetically, fascinated with language, especially its sonic capabilities and musical potential. The poems in this collection speak perhaps to the power of sound as a dictating force, which might be one reason that Doller is able to make the "leaps of thought" that Cole Swensen describes as "nothing short of Olympic." Captain William Dampier alludes to such jumps in the book's epigraph, speaking of "a thousand Accidents wʰ may require ye goeing somewhat aside from ye Principall Designe ; and may at the same time offer a yet more valuable Opertunity of some Collateral Discovery." Whether this book is propelled by sonic dictation or a mind prone to mishap, Doller does not allow such forces to lead the poems into a realm of total incoherence (though we are occasionally reminded that a little incoherence can, from time to time, be gratifying). Consider this from the book's opening poem, "What Do You Do":
Bunny go in your
then go around you
& go out you
should have known
me before, a human
being being before
a humming bee
kissing all the outlets
the toilets & violets
the various house nozzlets
The poem's title sets up an expectation of musicality through its assonance and (considering the book's epigraph and intermittent nautical fixations) the mind's singing of "with a drunken sailor" in response to it. This expectation is certainly fulfilled as the sounds and meanings cascade down the page, line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza. There is a certain sense of daring and pleasure in the dramatic use of the hard vowel in the second stanza given, which simultaneously conveys the joys of homonym not once, but twice, in the space of only seven words. The homonyms and persistence of sound work to emphasize the break in such similarities when one comes to "toilets & violets"; while the eye tells the reader these words should rhyme perfectly with one another, the words defy eye-to-sound convention and instead create an unusual eye-rhyme that hangs among the "be(e)"s and "lets" buzzing around it. This book is brimming with such wordplay. Doller's devotion to the power of sound allows him to at once pay homage to and defy poetic convention, as in "Like":
These more recent renaissances
shall not be attributed to the pains of some few
but rather to the proud ignorances
of the rest. Those soft sticky things I blew
in your mouth never were summer isis
but postmortem prepartum dandelion pappus
parachutes. They will not find purchase
there. We want weeds to burgeon from our mouths
but from this mouth burgeons only the reek
of the dead things it's eaten. And on the behemoth
sea off south Florida the sun is passing like
Wallace floating on a rubber innertube,
full of halitosis, far from accident
or indemnity, he is singing the genius of Haboob...
Here, Doller shows an appreciation for the more formal conventions of poetry through his scheme of end-rhymes, strange as they may be. At the same time, the less-conventional onslaught of consonance might divert some readers from the more delicate rhymes. Also, while poetic convention might tell us that using a word like "rubber" to describe "innertube" is perhaps redundant and unnecessary, Doller's poetics have me considering how fun a word like "rubber" can be.
I am also taken by the more personal flourishes in the preceding stanzas. There is a beautiful sort of intimacy, however disgusting, in "Those soft sticky things I blew / into your mouth ..." And the universal, yet startling truth of a mouth reeking from "the dead things it's eaten" draws a reader into the world of the poem at a level other than the aural. Perhaps the audacity of the wordplay makes it difficult for some readers to locate the truly personal touches Doller has incorporated into his work from the very beginning (I remember how flattering it was when Doller asked permission to tell the reader about his good dream in 2009's FAQ). The very nature of Dead Ahead, which tracks Doller's mind as he bounds among sounds and often-disparate ideas, makes it a personalized account of a mind consumed by language. In the book's wonderful final poem, "Each Thing Charged," after he has played off the words "ought," "aught," and "naught" and claimed "I am not / a vulgar corruption," Doller concludes by stating:
—My head, it
ought to have
a cap like
all. Each thing
ought to too
the stars are contagious.
The final leap of that last line seems a fitting conclusion to the blissful commotion of the book that preceded it. Other standout poems include "On Vacation," "Prescription Window," "Beret Spotting," "The Widow Ching Poems," "Column.," "Porch," and "Period Style."
Dead Ahead has been called a critique of language, of words that have been "pirated" into the English language (indeed, a poem like "Period Style" makes it evident that Doller has done some pirating of his own). While this is true, I find that this collection is, to an even greater extent, a celebration of language. Doller takes the wordplay and sounds that draw many of us to poetry in the first place and generates a sort of frenetic lullaby for grown-ups, one that simultaneously lulls and tows us into the depths of its acoustic sea, until we sleep, or drown, happily among its skeletons and sunken pirate ships.