By J.P. Dancing Bear
Salmon Poetry, 2008
Paperback, 72 Pages
By Jeannine Hall Gailey
J.P. Dancing Bear’s latest collection, Conflicted Light, takes on politics, Orpheus, and American Idol all in the same ambitious, sometimes cynical, sometimes playful, grasp. September 11th and the Iraq War are referenced along with other historical tragedies, like the Hindenburg’s explosion. A series of poems deals brilliantly with “stardom” as seen from the perspectives of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Ryan Seacrest. This ability to enter and re-enter time and space from the poet’s thoughtful point of view, while speaking through a variety of characters, makes Dancing Bear’s collection all the more entertaining and thought-provoking. Dancing Bear likes to explore forms as well; in this collection, there’s an elegy, several “casida” poems (an Arabic form of shorter verse,) as well as sonnets and variations on free verse.
The book is split into several sections, “Conflict,” “Exit Strategies,” “Armistice Days,” and “Aftermaths.” The tones of the sections range from political rage to melancholy to a renewed sense of hope found in nature and love. In the first section, “Conflict,” we are introduced to Biblical characters and Ryan Seacrest. One of my favorite poems in the book, and incidentally, one of the lighter poems in the section, was “Casida of Ryan Seacrest’s New Coat,” which manages to invoke Orpheus and Joseph of the many-colored coat, the cola wars, and the Iraq war.
“Because there must be a mic stand for every young Orpheus.
The demigod judges are looking for a foil.
A much-needed sacrifice of wink-smiling
to the giant red cola can in the sky.”
There are two other affecting poems that present Biblical characters, either out of place (“Jesus in America,”) or playing out a well-known story in a contemporary setting (“Cain in America”). In “Jesus in America,” Dancing Bear uses his satirical eye to place Jesus underneath the shadow of a main street McDonald’s, highlighting the church’s close relationship in American minds to consumerism:
“he looks up the huge golden arcs
of fast food reaching for heaven…
he is the bun of God,
the cola of deliverance.”
The ambiguities of “evil” are addressed in “Cain in America,” in which the poet Bear speaks to the suicide bombers of 9/11:
“Whisper what you will
into the flight recorder.
Fire is not the only way
In the poem, the poet addresses not only the killings of 9/11, but the killings that will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of the attacks: “Blood has begun to rise,/ humming like an angel/ / over the red heart of America.” The poem ends with the chilling line from the Genesis story, “God asks you/ Where is your brother?!” which highlights the terrible truth of man’s willingness to kill other men, whether in the name of God or the name of revenge.
The second section, “Exit Strategies,” enters the somber territory of the frailty of the human body, while the third section, “Armistice Days,” celebrates the rejuvenating effects of nature. My favorite of this section, “Auricle,” describes the speaker’s encounter with a hummingbird in his ear, a touching example of nature reawakening a man to his own humanity.
“I heard the humming engine
of a heart smaller than an anvil;
in the hummingbird’s forest
my ear was mistaken for a flower…
…Now I realize I worked for years
in the coded silence of a paper heart.”
The final section, “Aftermaths,” addresses women and love interests, with titles like “Medusa in Smallville” and “Persephone at the Farmer’s Market.” This section contains the most lyrical and sensual work of the book. Dancing Bear hits some lighter notes in this section, romantic but comical: “My best love poem is hidden/ in the cells of a spreadsheet,” the speaker of “The Hidden Cells” declares. But pathos appears here as well; the poem “Sonnet” describes a man hoping to hear messages from a dead lover in the last note she left him, and Medusa, Circe and Persephone struggle with aging and the loss of their respective lovers.
The last lines of the final poem, “Birthday Note,” indicate the speaker has regained hope: “A new version of my old self…in a room/ full of meteorologists—/ unafraid of the weather.”
Conflicted Light contains multitudes: voices male and female, subjects ranging from war to snow globes, parody mixing with passion. It’s a book unafraid of complication that revels in its range.