What Is Owed the Dead
R. H. W. Dillard
Factory Hollow Press ($14)
by Greg Weiss

At first glance, the most striking thing about R.H.W. Dillard’s new volume is its premise; as the inside-jacket copy tells us, this long-awaited seventh collection consists of a sequence of fifty-two poems, each sixteen lines long, each addressed to a dead poet or several times to more than one dead poet. Each is a meditation of sorts upon that poet’s work, secondarily that poet’s life. But the manner in which Dillard delivers that premise is inseparable from the premise itself. As an example, here is “Next War” in its entirety:

Dark early morning, (11/04/1918), the Sambre,
Canal bank, very heavy fire, pontoons shell
Shattered, trying to cross, a raft, and then,
“The old Lie,” you Wilfred, hit and hit • • •
The Great War, “five healthy girls died of fright,”
French village, British barrage, “in one night,”
And always another war—1944, dad, Captain, USAAF,
Pedaling an English bike, V-1 sputters, glides, explodes,
Buzz bomb, doodlebug, in the ditch, “This one’s,” triage,
“A dead one,” always choices, always, attacks, betrayal,
November 1918, day by day 2,088 die, no point,
“By choice they made themselves immune,”
For what? Dryburgh, Haig’s grave, single cut stone,
Simple wooden cross, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths
Of red paper poppies (06/28/1987), “to pity and whatever
Mourns,” father survived, “pro patria,” you did not.

Wilfred Owen: “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Letter (10/29/1918), “Insensibility”

“Next War,” which is the first of five poems of the same name, is typical of the volume in its use of short phrases separated by commas, dates, the black circles to represent gunfire, footnoted quotations, and the powerfully recurring thematic reference to Wilfred Owen. Most of the poems footnote more than one writer, however, and the winner of the footnote contest is the penultimate poem in the book, “Passion 3,” which features ten.

There are many dangers in such a combination of premise and style, but the two greatest strike me as the related issues of the parlor trick and the inside joke, both crimes of hubris. In relation to the parlor trick, I, for one, don’t want to watch Dillard (or anyone else) display his intellectual and technical ability, and in relation to the inside joke I don’t want to be excluded. But Dillard, even in his eight-footnote poem, falls prey to neither of these options. As in any volume there are unsuccessful poems, but they nearly always falter attempting generosity, not superiority. Despite the allusive style, What Is Owed the Dead is quite moving; the volume’s allusiveness, particularly in relation to the personal lives and publication histories of writers, is in fact largely responsible for one of its most important attributes: Dillard treats poets like human beings. (Claudia Rankine does a similar thing with celebrities and politicians in her 2004 volume Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.) In “Anxiety,” for instance, addressed to W. H. Auden, Dillard writes:

Today as then, “divided days,” forced
To “choose from ways, all of them evil,
One,” border crossings, lies, lies, lies,
Wystan, you fled NYC, mugged in Oxford,
Never ends, remembering once a voice
Through morning mail slot, “O all the instruments
Agree,” years later, hearing older lady to a friend,
You, reading (03/21/1972), intoning, “I thought,”
Greatest hits, one last appearance in US,
Wrinkled, slippered, lionized, “he was going
To read poetry,” even now, words about love,
“About suffering,” just stew for the pot,
“Emptied of its poetry,” scholarly pissing
In the kitchen sink, you scrawled name over
OED , tagging, and yet always seemed aware
That “goodness,” lately or early, “is timeless.”

W. H Auden: Paid on Both Sides, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “Archaeology”

The tribute of the last line is only enhanced by Dillard’s earlier honesty about his dismissive attitude towards Auden’s later poetry. But as the “scholarly pissing / in the kitchen sink” hints at but skirts, Dillard’s weakness in such an erudite volume isn’t pedantry but short, anti-intellectual rants. In “Satyricon,” for instance, which footnotes Petronius Arbiter and Merle Travis, after twelve fascinating lines about the relationship between distraction and reality, the final four holler like a grumpy old man:

Makeovers on every TV tube, “reality,”
Poetry, all arts debased, while everything
Is “art,” Britney proclaims her art, shake it,
Shake it, “pecuniae cupiditas,” you said it.

The relevant Britney is, of course, Spears, but Dillard’s unsupported notion that the pop star and “art” are mutually exclusive is childish, and a rare lack of magnanimity on the poet’s part. Overall, however, What Is Owed the Dead is excellent, and its premise does just what a premise should: not dictate or overwhelm the material, but create a setting for the material to emerge, allowing its divergent threads to cohere naturally, without insisting. As a final example, here is “Exile,” the first of three poems of that name:

Loneliness, you, Ovid, on the Black Sea, Pontus
Euxinus
, year 8, exiled, imperial claim, for love,
Ars Amatoris, Nelly, 1940, safe in Sweden
From Nazis but not from die Blicke, glances,
Der Toten, of millions going up in black
Smoke, Joseph, 1972, you, safe, too, in U.S.A.,
persona non grata in terra incognita,” behind
All of you, landscape, pines, lindens, aspens,
Those faces, most of all, language, “vix
Subeunt ipsi verba Latina mihi
,” old words
“Rusty and stiff,” intoned (04/01/75) Russian
Verse, few understanding, sleeves rolled up,
Cigarette poised so carefully on filter,
Joseph, hand on shoulder, to shy student poet,
New room, new world, ΠYCTOTA, emptiness,
“Don’t be,” exile’s best advice, “nervous.”

PUBLIUS OVIDIUS NASO: Tristia, V, vii
DAVID R. SLAVITT: The Tristia of Ovid
NELLY SACHS: “You onlookers”
JOSEPH BRODSKY: “Abroad,” “December 24, 1971”

The “Next War” and “Exile” series form the backbone of What Is Owed the Dead, and “Exile” is typical of many of its best poems in its sense of affirmation. Engaged conversation, even if about bleak subject matter, is at least one answer Dillard gives to the question posed by the book’s title.

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