Poets of Franklin County: 'Ruins Assembling'
The poems in Greenfield poet Dennis Finnell’s new book, “Ruins Assembling,” are different than the poems he and I talked about back in the fall of 2012, when he had won the Bellday Prize, which included publication of his full-length collection “Pie 8.”
Finnell describes the poems in “Pie 8” as “Fragmented. Shorter. Lots of little ‘quick takes.’”
The poems in the new book, many of which run two pages, some even longer, “Do take their time to develop,” Finnell says, smiling not with apology but with full awareness of the expansiveness of the new poems.
Would he describe the new poems as “narrative?”
Finnell laughs and offers some alternate descriptors: “Anecdotal? Lyrical?”
Many of the poems are written about family or friends who have passed on, Finnell says. Some address more public or societal concerns, such as the poem “Best wishes, or sorte Bushianae,” a 3½-page poem that uses scarily naïve quotes (or at least, I hope they were naïve quotes) from former president George W. Bush as tea leaves from which to read America’s future.
Not surprisingly, among the prophecies Finnell presents in the poem are: “Our mornings shall rise brightly, a big Caucasian face/ smiling providentially upon us” and “We’ll give money to rich people.”
Finnell and I sit in the sunlit living room of his Greenfield home and talk about his new collection, “Ruins Assembling,” the first full-length book of poetry to be published by Shape and Nature Press of Greenfield.
After some discussion, we settle on the poem, “Under our boot soles,” a sonnet Finnell wrote in memory of a beloved college professor, Jim Thomas.
“Jim Thomas was an early professor of mine in Missouri and he loved sonnets,” Finnell says. Thomas wrote what he called “Midwestern sonnets” that contained 15 lines instead of the standard 14, Finnell recalls.
“I think I remember him saying that the traditional 14-line sonnet didn’t give him enough room — the Midwest is BIG!” Finnell wrote later, to clarify. “So he, partly tongue-in-cheek, said he needed one more line.”
Finnell’s elegy to Thomas stays within the sonnet’s 14-line format but deviates in other ways from either the traditional Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet. It’s divided into two 4-line stanzas and two 3-line stanzas, for one thing. And the rhyming scheme differs from the strictest version of either form. Some of Finnell’s rhymes are “near rhymes” rather than full rhymes, offering to the reader’s ear, for example, the words “fall” and “whole,” which somehow feel more satisfying and less locked-in than an exact rhyme (such as “fall” and “tall”) would have sounded.
Perhaps Finnell, like his mentor, is writing a Midwestern sonnet. He’s definitely earned claim to one. Finnell grew up in St. Louis and attended Northeast Missouri State University, now called Truman State University, in Kirksville, Mo., where he meet Thomas.
“He’d smoke before class,” Finnell remembers of Thomas. “Actually, he’d just open a window and walk out on the roof. The first time I saw him do that I thought, ‘Holy shit! He’s going to fall!’”
And then, because the students seated at their desks couldn’t see the roof Thomas had stepped out onto, “It was almost as if his presence created the roof,” Finnell said.
Finnell’s poem, “Under our boot soles,” is an elegy to Thomas, who died several years ago from bone disease, thus the “hollow bones” in Finnell’s poem.
“He loved Whitman,” Finnell says of Thomas. The poem’s title is taken from a section of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass:”
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
Finnell is already at work on a new manuscript he calls “Bright Containers.” It takes its title from some lines of Theodore Roetke’s poem “I Knew A Woman:”
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
The new poems are “fairly short again,” Finnell says. “And they work with different shapes.” A lot of the shapes are confined, he says, and the lines wrap more like prose, which should come as a relief to certain designers of newspaper columns.
Reading at Mocha Maya’s May 1
Finnell and former New Hampshire Poet Laureate Patricia Fargnoli will read Thursday, May 1, 7 p.m., in the Collected Poets series at Mocha Maya’s, 47 Bridge Street, Shelburne Falls, MA. Phone: 413-625-6292.
Also recently published
“Coming of Age: Poems by Ann Marie Meltzer,” with illustrations by Ann Linde. Sponsored by Seeds of Solidarity, SEED Systems, Inc. and published by Haley’s, 488 South Main St., Athol, MA 01331; 800-215-8805; firstname.lastname@example.org. Meltzer will be reading and signing books on Saturday, April 26, noon to 2 p.m. at World Eye Bookshop, 156 Main St., Greenfield. Contact: 413-772-2186
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at email@example.com.