The Return, Mike Dillon — Finishing Line Press, $14.99.
Mike Dillon’s experience in haiku fills his longer-form poetry as well. The Return brims with potent, economical, imagistic poems—the publisher’s description as “laconic” is apt. The poetry’s brevity is a strength, inviting contemplation. The poems draw from a deep well of faith; not a sentimental faith, but a faith that knows sin, suffering, and death, as well as forgiveness, joy, and resurrection.
The first poem, “Once”, draws the reader into an encounter with Christ as He draws in the dirt, inviting those who have no sin to first throw stones. As Christ kneels to draw, there is something in that act that “made us pick up stones.” Christ’s words,
spoken so patiently, so clearly, locked each of us inside our own glass house holding our stone, fumbling for the key.
The image is striking yet familiar; the cliché both comforts and surprises. Dillon leaves no room for religious sentimentality. Instead of putting the reader at Christ’s feet with the woman to whom Christ will say, “Neither do I condemn you,” the reader joins the crowd. The deft choice of perspective lets the reader hear the voice of the Law—“You are not He who is without sin.”
This is not the only place where the Law speaks clearly in Dillon’s work. The second half of “Two Ekphrastic Considerations” is subtitled “Giotto: St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297-1300.” It is the stronger of the two halves (the first is more expansive, with longer lines, but the length of the lines encumbers the simple power of the poem’s central idea). In the first stanza, Dillon paints the simple appearance of the saint, “from Giotto’s masterfully tender hand,” in a brown cassock and a halo, preaching to gentle doves. The second and third stanzas recount “Francis the hard ass”—a man of much action, “seared by the five wounds of Christ / through the lightning rod of unbreakable faith.” This is why the birds come to hear Francis preaching. Here, again, God’s Law thunders, this time in the birdsong of
Those sweet white doves that did not find him wanting. Live all the way, not half, is what the birds say.
Dillon knows the poetic tradition, but he is not in thrall to it. “Childhood Vacation” is a loose villanelle that echoes Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something.” But Dillon is clearer, more direct—unlike Frost who saw “something white, uncertain,” Dillon has “glimpsed what the soul might be.” Frost asks, “What was that whiteness? / Truth? A pebble of quartz?” Frost lost his vision when “[w]ater came to rebuke that too clear water.” Dillon is clearer-eyed, and he knows it: “Once there was a white rock on the floor of a lake / no one else in the dory seemed to see.” Frost drew from a well; Dillon draws from a lake. Frost leaves “that whiteness” behind him at the end of the poem; Dillon “pocket[s] the rock in [his] memory, / a north star to steer by[.]”
But this is not arrogance on Dillon’s part. Instead, it is the faith of a child that allows Dillon to know, to see, to “glimpse[ ] what no grownup could see”—even as the wind howls “like a banshee” (an appropriately childish turn of phrase), and the “white-capped lake” retains its “buried secret of what the soul might be.” This faith is a sacramental faith—the soul might be like the rock, “white as my first communion wafer[.]” It is impossible to avoid the baptismal context, as well, when a speaker is surrounded by water and, indeed, when that water buries the “secret of how the soul might be[.]” For Dillon, water does not “rebuke the too clear water,” but clarifies. Through faith, Dillon can know truth in that pebble of quartz.
Dillon obviously has a poet’s eye. The collection’s strength is in its images: an old priest’s “nicotine-stained fingers” gripping “the immaculate white host of first communion” (“The Dream”); a wind over a “dusk-darkened sea” that “skirled down” and “palmed your face” under “berry-bright Venus” (“Holy Island: Iona, Scotland”); “the dark-haired beauty of a face / from a 19th century novel” that is “buried in an early grave of deep thought” (“Glimpse”); “a sunlit field tonsured by a blue pond” (“Journey”). Dillon’s poetry is an unending flow of beauty, often drawn from nature. This makes sense: Dillon is well-known for his work in haiku. Knowing of Dillon’s skill in haiku, I was surprised that the collection has but a single formal poem (“Childhood Vacation”). I had hoped to see Dillon turn his hand toward other forms; if ever he does, I’m sure he will use them to share with the world more beautiful poetry.