Review by Jack Smith
Essayist, memoirist, fiction writer, prize-winning novelist, and founder and editor of Ploughshares, DeWitt Henry has gained a solid reputation for his contributions to several literary forms, including poetry. His most recent book is a collection of found poems, all from prose works, taken from fiction as well as nonfiction. Here we discover a wide range of themes and a rich blend of literary styles—and much felt life, charged with pathos. His adept use of two techniques in found poetry—erasure and free-form excerpting and remixing—aid in Henry’s judicious selection of lines and their arrangement on the page, matching sound with sense as well as giving new form to the texts he skillfully recasts from prose to poetry.
“Such a Thing,” a found poem from Jamaica Kincaid’s memoir My Brother, takes up the issue of death—the death of Kincaid’s gay brother due to AIDS. He was, in her words, “buried in the warm and yellow clay of the graveyard in Antigua.” Henry concentrates on the lines that deal with Kincaid’s perplexity over his imponderable appearance in his casket. Death happens every day, and yet it’s always “so new” to those left behind, the mourners. Speaking to other mourners, Kinkaid, in Henry’s lines, found herself unable to “explain,” for “such a thing had never/happened to me before.” The poem wrestles with this conundrum of death: “In spite of all the people/I had been close to who had died/ I had never believed in it,/ the very fact that they had died;/… I thought of them as somewhere else.” Note the rhythm of these lines and how they position us, as readers, to focus on Kincaid’s witnessing the dead bodies of people she had known: “I had never believed in it”—end-stop here on this irreconcilable difference between life and death. And then the facticity, which comes home in Henry’s abrupt end-stop, giving emphasis to a conceptual reordering of reality: “I thought of them as somewhere else.”
“Insomnia” crystalizes the last few pages of Joyce’s “The Dead” so that he achieves a fine compression. The poem is based on the incident of Michael Furey’s death, his unrequited love, years ago, for the point-of-view character’s wife. Joyce’s writing becomes profoundly lyrical, and Henry’s found poem captures this emotional energy, which reaches its peak at the end of Joyce’s story and, as well, in Henry’s found poem, with marvelous restraint. We watch as the husband’s attention is captured by the snow; how sleepily he watched it; the configuration of the flakes themselves; how they fell; what they fell against. The line breaks accentuate the sensuous quality of the snow in a felt yet deliberate, measured way. It’s a work of meditation, and Henry’s lines capture this with short, clipped lines.
In his redoing of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Henry’s “Tell It” uses erasure to skip some of Edwards’ opening lines in the sermon’s Application section, which include:“This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; ‘tis only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.” And so on, emphasizing the immediate destruction to the sinner were God to withdraw his hand.
We need to read Edwards’ sermon in this Calvinistic context, and we need to read Henry’s “Tell It” in the same context, although it’s much more concise and with certain emphases not necessarily in Edwards’ version. Note, for instance, the rhythm of the opening lines of “Tell It”: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell,/much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect/over the fire,/ abhors you/ and is dreadfully provoked.” The spacing, as well as the italics, gives an extra punch to Edwards’ lines. Edwards delivered this sermon in a monotone, not vocalizing it with a tirade of fire and brimstone, as one might imagine. It had its effect, perhaps because of the sober voice, meditating, at great length, on imminent destruction. We can read Henry’s poem in a monotone, but the lines themselves move us along, with considerable impact.
“Carry On” is a found poem from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. As I stated in my interview of O’Brien, for The Writer, back in 2009, “As he points out in ‘How to Tell a True War Story,’ in The Things They Carried, war isn’t just hell; it’s about many other things, too, including ‘longing and love.’” In one section of this by-now classic work, O’Brien covers, at length, what the American soldiers carried in Vietnam. The list includes a compelling mix of the specific and the general, the concrete and the abstract. Henry takes a number of lines, whole cloth, creates a poem with striking imagery, giving poetic rhythm to the prose: “They took up what others could no longer bear./ Often they carried each other, the wounded or weak./They carried infections./They carried chess sets, basketballs,/Vietnamese-English dictionaries,/insignia of rank,/Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts,/plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.” Note the arrangement of words on the page: a line of pathology, two lines of specific objects for recreational purposes, one line of rank, two of honorific medals. Henry’s meter created by this arrangement gives emphasis to each of these. Each line ending constitutes a beat that drums home the nature of what’s carried.
All in all, Henry draws found poems from the work of thirty prose pieces, including from his own, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, winner of the inaugural Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. His range covers classics as well as contemporaries, Tolstoy to Robert Coover, Samuel Richardson to Virginia Woolf to Alice Munro. His topics vary from the nature of the universe to the fathering and mothering of newborns, from romantic love to sexual objectification. A world of prose becomes a world of poetry in Henry’s skillful hands.