Poetry News

Locating Oneself in the Complex Continuum of Dana Ward's This Can't Be Life

By Harriet Staff


Joshua Ware reviews Dana Ward's This Can't Be Life, noting a certain "draining effect" and inscribing that with positive complexity. "[I]n the manner [Ward] conflates memoir with poetry, it 'wouldn’t be wrong to…call' the space he creates 'life. Nor would it be wrong to call it poetry'." More:

...The mixture of life and art, prose and poetic “formulations,” then, “makes the space awkward” so that “even the words seems to drain us of speech” (128) and their ability to name and provide formal designations.

To this extent, the draining-effect of Ward’s first book can be understood as an interrogation of and affront to poems and poetic sensibilities. But it’s not just the poem and its aesthetic traits that he questions; in fact, he problematizes the very notion of what it means to be a poet. In his epically-conceived “Typing ‘Wild Speech’,” Ward writes:

Take for instance the notion of ‘poet’. I’ve allowed a lot of myth to hold sway over how I perform that for myself…[I] make a deep claim on the mantle & with varying critiques & complicating models re-fit that space & thus [my] life. I used to see ‘being a poet’ as an intoxicating costume that was just over there & if I could inch ever closer to it I’d be contaminated fully & mixed with its essence forever. Often times I have nothing to add to this confusion beyond the lightning storm of my own political depravations, for which my poetry is an endless sea of waiting metal rods. So there’s the face of part of my trouble. (66)
To his mind, the term “poet” is at once a “myth,” a “contamination,” and a state of “confusion” that one must “perform”; but not without offering various “critiques & complicating models” that “re-fit” the complex space containing both art and life. Yes, to be a poet is to be in a state of “confusion” wherein one must “commit crimes against the position” so as to “open up…value” (68), which itself is complication. To be a poet is to destroy one's own ontology, then re-build oneself with different parameters.

But for Ward, the confusions and complications that create value in the space of the poem and the poet extend to the broader communities, institutions, industries, and worlds of poetry as well. In “The End of the Far West,” he writes:

What institutional worlds am I of, & asked singly, by me, does the question really matter or is it grounded finally in collective intuitions about the fate of poetry broadly, its myriad relational tensions scaffolding over some pulsing unknown?

I kept hearing in my head a voice that said “I just don’t care”, & I resented this voice for being cavalier. I was certain its intent was to trick me; to render institutional complicity invisible by shrugging like a beautiful teenager, a voice that had no clue its attitude was in some ways a production, an effect, of the institution’s power to establish itself as a point of relational departure. (107-108)

The poet begins by asking “What institutional world am I of,” all the while aware that the “myriad relational tensions scaffolding over some pulsing unknown” render the answer to this question more foggily intuitive than systematically definitive. Of course, to respond apathetically to the fogginess with “I just don’t care” does not absolve the poet of assessing his or her place in the broader poetic community. In fact, apathy can be understood as a “production, an effect, of the institution’s power to establish itself as a point of relational departure.” In other words, if one self-identifies as a poet, locating oneself in the complex continuum of aesthetics, personalities, and beliefs is, perhaps, a necessary task.

Please read this thoughtful review in full here.

Originally Published: January 10th, 2013