Alan Kaufman's review of Steve Dalachinsky's book, A Superintendent's Eyes

LEAVES OF GLASS: Steve Dalachinsky's A Superintendent's Eyes by Alan Kaufman

steve dalachinsky a superintendent's eyes cover

Steve Dalachinsky's new volume of poems, A Superintendent's Eyes (Unbearable Books/Autonomedia) with accompanying photographs by Arthur Kaye, in some respects brings to mind Robert Lowell's groundbreaking volume Life Studies (1959) in being a kind of autoPOEography issued in a liberatingly loosened mode of composition and at a time when bland lifeless uptight verse (MFA work shopped in our day; I.A. Richards' New Crit-collared iambs in Lowell's) became--then as now--the national New Yorker standard.

But there all resemblance ends.

Lowell, as we know, was the acclaimed darling of the1950s Kenyon Review/Partisan Review set when he ran up against Ginsberg's HOWL and emerged bug-eyed with the newly-minted freewheeling informality of Life Studies. Life Studie's memoiristic revelations of mental illness and general White Anglo Saxon Protestant angst helped to launch, along with W..D. Snodgrass's Heart's Needle, the ‘Confessional Poetry’ movement that later gave us Plath, Berryman, Sexton, Jarrell, Schwartz—a generation of suicides.

No one reading Dalachinsky's volume is likely to kill themselves. Dalachinsky's gravitas never loses its playful edge. And for sheer beauty and wit A Superintendent’s Eyes levels the current contemporary playing field altogether. It is the single most important volume of poetry to appear in the last ten years. Yes, more important than Jorie Graham, Mark Doty or Thomas Lux.  And I don't know who the hell else.  Yes, more important than the last ten Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners. Yes, more important, believe it or not, then Anne Carson.

Who is Dalachinsky? He's far from a complete unknown. He's won the PEN Josephine Miles Poetry Award. And I could, for instance, while waiting to perform in San Francisco with an eminent senior poet like David Meltzer, mention Dalachinsky and he knows exactly who I’m talking about. Dalachinsky is famous, but only among an elect of avant-garde poets around the U.S. And Dalachinsky is something of a star in Paris, too, but again, chiefly among the avant-garde. In other words: he is to poetry as de Kooning was to painting before he broke big. Or more recently, to continue with the painting analogy, Thomas Nozkowski before Pace Gallery made him the new byword in minimalist abstraction.

I prefer the painting comparisons to literary ones because, quite simply, Dalachinsky paints in verse. His verse line is his de Kooningesque brushstroke—singularly, unmistakably his, and loaded both with hard-earned Kunst and Gotham grit.

He is the poet that America has been waiting for to free our national verse from its stratospheric sense of self-importance and return us to a poetry of flesh and heart, song and cement, just as Whitman's Leaves of Grass did in in the nineteenth Century.

In 2006, in a review of a volume of San Francisco's former Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman's Arcanes, I likened Hirschman's work, in significance, to that of Whitman's but after reading Dalachinsky's volume, cover to cover, at least three times—all 180 pages—I see that Hirschman's book was but a kind of Emersonian prefiguring, an anticipation, while Dalachinsky's A Superintendant's Eyes is, like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the fulfillment, the realization—the very thing itself.  A Superintendent's Eyes is a Leaves of Glass for the 21st century—a Song of Oneself sung literally from out of the basement bowels of Manhattan.

Until not long ago Dalalachinsky was a superintendent in a Spring Street apartment building in Soho. The poems, assembled over twenty years, are a sometimes joyous, sometimes shattering glimpse of life seen from behind the headlines: handles of a garbage laden trash can, a blizzarded snow-shovel, a broken-glass sweeping broom. The poems are ash can sonatas to lovemaking with wife, eating out in restaurants, illness, cancelled hopes, money worries, cash scores, tenant complaints, landlord humiliations, ruminations on drug addiction—in other words, LIFE from the ground up. What it's like to be alive.

The titles of the poems containing a number and a parenthesized phrase, might very well be titles to paintings. In one, '#60 (toilet)', he begins:

my house is being destroyed. They started to build my

new bathroom. I've had a tub in the kitchen & toilet in the

hall for years.”

And after a litany of plused and minused reality-based tensions about workers slacking off on the job, his Japanese poet-wife, the lovely Yuko, being away in Japan, moving boxes into the basement and where to relocate his writing space, the poem explodes into a mysterious loveliness and profundity:

“snowflowers breathe into my face

i am stuck like the hands of 2 lovers circling

i know my shapes

but even children grow into wars

There is nothing in current American verse to equal this. Not since James Wright has an American written with equal intuited grace.

In #59 (anticipating the drill) he presents a Whitmanesque miscellany of Self:

“when i was young i read all the right books. i was sure that if i tried hard enough they would help me cope with my dilemma. my feelings of gross inadequacy, lack of identity & paranoia. well they did.

kafka taught me that it was ok to be a cockroach in a castle& to hate my father; camus taught me that it was fine to feel left out, floating, not remembering my mom's birthday

or even the day she died. was it yesterday or today?'

and as he gathers steam:

“here you find a handbook of how to deal with rejection, alienation, introspection&extermination...” and further on:

“i'm an unending compendium of ill will. a malcontent

i sing i bark i contort”

While others are garnering Pulitzers he's lugging out trash and though he hates his fate he also loves the freedom it gives, having, as a super, no rent to pay, no real authority to answer to, and much time amid ruminations about the state of the city he loves and loathes to pounce upon the occasional exquisitely heart-rending epiphany:

the cemetary is so quiet the wind in the trees

tears my wife in half

there is a moment of beauty a cloud moving east

her face & then the close up

there's something too big here too out of place too real

Regardless of the circumstance, whether quarreling with a tenant or balancing on a ledge to clear leaves from a drain, the urge is towards a fusion, a synthesis of the world with personal vision:

& my desire to be a true bourgeois heightened

along with my desire to be homeless

& my desire to be my neighbor's dog

& the dead water bug near the fuse box

& one of those 4 pigeons

swaying like leaves on the leafless tree

in the middle of winter

that i watched this morning

thru the small new window

in my bedroom

A Superintendent's Eyes is not only an inspired poetic feat of great importance but in an age of decimated individuality it is a reminder and affirmation of the infinite poetic prism of authentically voiced self. It is the strangely joyful celebration of a reluctant proletarian of genuine genius, held-fast by an imprisoning freedom of rent-free motionless time-sailing through an American urban street building, and how he renders infinite possibility and comedy from uncertainty and vulnerability. Dalachinsky's poems are the unheard music of the front stoop and the burnt out light bulb, the broken plumbing and the broke tenant. His poems reveal the freedom of the Actual, the sacred precincts of language-ensnared reality. They are, in contemporary American verse, a new country, a new region: an account of Being that becomes Great in the constant address to the stink and beauty of the unprivileged turf of striving existence.--These are not the delusions that arise from the corridors of Academe but the exalting self manifest as anguished laughter and solemnity from the Zen-like sweeping broom of mind as it gathers gum wrappers and broken glass, derelicts and tenants into the exaltations of poetry.