Tuesday, March 07, 2006
DENNIS SCHMITZ READING AT ART FOUNDRY FEB. 25
What better way to kick off the Sacramento Poetry Center's blog than with Sacramento's first poet laureate. The dean of Sacramento letters, Dennis Schmitz read at the Art Foundry on February 25. He read from primarily two sources: his book Singing, which was approaching its 20th anniversary of publication and many new, unpublished pieces. As he read, the shrine of roosters behind him appeared to be ready to join in and crow with delight, ready to spread their mayhem just as the typical Schmitz line scatters its idiosyncratic details and diction with a sonic quirkiness that makes ordinarily well-behaved consonants begin to behave as though they were having too good of a time.
When Dennis Schmitz reads, one must be prepared to open up a time capsule. This was certainly the case when he read from “Skinning the Cat” which documents the game he used to play as a boy during the World War II years. A group of people would assemble in the living room and wait for the mysterious items that were being prepared in the kitchen. The “cat skinner” would prepare items like a warm grape or cantaloupe innards that would be ushered out to the waiting group where they would have to guess which parts of the cat they were handling. [Too bad the darkness would prevent a reality TV camera from entering upon the scene.] The poem is told from the perspective of a young boy who enters the room carrying the vessel full of faux cat parts.
“Country Deaths” is a poem that deals with the despair of farmers in Schmitz’s boyhood Iowa. One particularly grim passage lists the ways that people had either killed themselves or thought of killing themselves in order to escape that despair.
Informed by the same period of time in his life, “A Man and a Woman” speaks of a couple traveling down the road with the woman flying in the air as she hangs off the vehicle. Finally, she transmogrifies into a metal contraption. This piece seemed to go nicely with the metal sculpture of a woman that was suspended from the ceiling with wire, flying above Schmitz as he read.
“Finding the Way,” The History of Armor,” and “Apostle to the Birds” from Singing were followed by “Coma,” a poem about a man whose unconscious state heals the world’s war wounds and prevents further atrocities, blanketing the world in a similar peace. The man lies in his hospital bed and receives a phone call from Eisenhower, but fortunately for the world, he is unable to take the call.
The second half of the reading featured new unpublished pieces. “Elms” dealt with a trip for the speaker back to the old hometown to visit a brother. During the trip the speaker witnesses the removal of the elms due to Dutch elm disease and reflects on their passing as things that have served beyond their purpose. This piece seemed to be the one that hit home emotionally for many of those in attendance as one of those gasps of sympathy that often appear at poetry readings as signs of approval lifted above the crowd like a helium balloon.
Schmitz had recently visited the Seattle area and he read two poems about the ferries. The one “Bainbridge Island Ferry” spoke of the ferry as kind of a giant vessel that contained humanity in its modernity. Then the speaker focused on one of its marginal members, a man who passes out “prayer cards,” and meditates on the man’s place on the juggernaut of a ferry moving forward.
“Port Townsend, Lawrence Street” featured two deer that came into view down to the middle of town from the library. The speaker muses that the deer were perhaps done with their studying.
“Bait” told of a fishing trip in reverse chronological order with Schmitz’s old friend Tom Crawford. The first part of the poem tells of their arrival at the pond to find it is not what they thought it would be, littered as it is with building materials for the next set of condos to go in. The second part of the poem talks about the speaker and his friend getting lost in the car on the way, and the poem concludes with the two early morning travelers out on the road full of hope where the speaker offers in the last line, “how perfect the fish become as we talk bait.”
Two shorter pieces were next. The one, “Eye Bush,” was, as the title surreal suggests, about a bush full of eyes that had grown to witness the world’s spectacles and failures.
The other, my personal favorite of the night, was about a well-known woman and her dancing chicken on Halsted Street in Chicago. The dancing chicken is a genius, the speaker reveals, and is tempted to join in with the chicken except for the fact that its droppings are scattered all over the sidewalk and he is afraid to get them all over his shoes, a wry commentary on contemporary life.
“Animism” produced the loudest guffaw all night when Schmitz described Dick Cheney as an animal “with four paws up, nut in mouth.” Cheney escaped the poem without much further damage, but the speaker’s “animism” commented on Cheney as a natural phenomenon where a soul seemed poised to invade an inanimate object.
“Heckfire” was the finale and it spoke of Schmitz’s opposition to the death penalty. Schmitz protests the executions in California every time they take place, and this informed the poem. The speaker mentions a blind and crippled prisoner readied for execution, almost certainly a reference to Clarence Allen, a frail, diabetic old man of 76 when he was put to death by the State of California in January of 2006.