The Efficiency of Simplicity: The Poet Master in Philip Dacey's Mosquito Operas

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Thoreau extolls in Walden. In poetry, as in life, simplicity can often be a virtue. A simple line, a small word, or a short sound can bring greater depth than any muddling of dense metaphor.
Drawing from Eastern influences, the West, and all over poetry’s deep history, poet Philip Dacey brings simplicity alive in Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems. While the title is somewhat misleading, (there are a number of short pieces, but many longer poems strung together by short stanza) each chapter displays the power of brevity as it works through the poet’s eye.
“Frank Lloyd Wright said that ‘the small house is the architect’s greatest challenge,’ and maybe that’s true of the short poem too,” Dacey says. “I remember one of my teachers at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Marvin Bell, saying that ‘a short poem needn’t be small.’ Sometimes less is indeed more.”
Mosquito Operas opens with a two-line poem, composed of only eight words, that demonstrates his handle on concise diction. In “How I Escaped from the Labyrinth,” Dacey draws the reader into a labyrinth of his own. With only a few words, he sets up a long corridor of walls in which to get lost and ponder through.
      It was easy.
      I kept losing my way.
Perhaps the poem suggests the best way to work through Dacey’s writing. Serious theory or fevered debate have little place here. Dacey’s genius simply requires an opening of the eyes to recognize, not a line-by-line analysis. Call it meandering, for much as the poem suggests, one feels compelled to lose their way while reading Dacey’s work. The reader quickly finds that instead of having to be wrested from the page, the poems grow organically from the experience of each word.
It’s not unlike the meditations of a Zen master offering a student conundrum after conundrum – classic problems like the spokeless wheel or one hand clapping on its own. Discovery in Dacey’s poetry is as surprising and epiphanic as those old teachings of the East. The region’s influence permeates his work.
“The West has long been fascinated by the East, of course, and that’s true in literature, too,” Dacey says. “The Imagist movement early in the last century, for example, looked to the Japanese for a new aesthetic. I learned a lot from Lucien Stryk’s Zen Poems of China and Japan in the Seventies, and then in the Nineties there was Robert Hass’s The Essential Haiku, plus numerous other collections in between. What I’ve taken from them is a reminder that the mansion of poetry has many rooms; yes, the odes of Keats are grand literary monuments, but Issa’s ‘Don’t worry, Spiders, I’m not a very good housekeeper’ is a true poem as well, deserving immortality. Ford Madox Ford said the last thing that literature should be is literary, and I think the great Chinese and Japanese artists of the short poem demonstrate that point. One of the signature characteristics of their work is freshness.”
This influence lends itself as subject matter in the poems as well. In “Notes of an Ancient Chinese Poet,” Dacey turns the influence into a meditation on style, and again, the idea of the “non-literary” side of literature shines through.
      Shave the head of your poem
      lest it admire its own
      curls and waves in the mirror.
The poetic imagery is there: the curls and waves that form in hair, the personification of the poem into a vain individual. But with a short stanza, Dacey delivers his message to the reader: don’t lose your poem to aesthetic pursuits. At one moment he is poet, at another a master guiding a young apprentice.
Whenever Dacey conjures the essence of serious subjects or objects in the world, humor facilitates engagement for the reader on a deeper level.
“Maybe humor is a way to disarm a reader, to break through his or her resistance to poetry,” Dacey says. “Maybe it’s like the meat that’s thrown to the dog by the thief so that the thief, the poet, can gain entrance to the house the dog is guarding. Similarly, Eliot claimed that if you give the audience a striptease they’ll swallow the poetry. I think the humor is the striptease. Robert Creeley said that ‘if a poem isn’t fun, it’s not a poem,’ but ‘fun’ there is obviously broadly defined. Maybe Hamlet’s ‘by indirections find directions out’ applies here -- humor can be an indirect way to reach sober truths.”
In his two-stanza poem “The Story,” Dacey reflects on his daughter’s emergence from childhood and welcoming into the realist attitude of the adult world:
      “Once upon a time
      is for people who live in the woods,”
      my daughter said,
      once upon a time.
With her attitude towards the traditional beginning of children’s stories, the daughter in the poem shows her desire to seem older than she is. Dacey uses humorous irony in a number of ways, however, to disarm the daughter’s sentiment.
The quote itself reflects something that a young person would say. It’s a play on a familiar phrase and one that could easily have readers chuckling. The father’s use of the phrase, however, diffuses the daughter and turns her own thought around on itself.
What Dacey accomplishes with the use of humor is the formation of two distinct personas that reflect the passing of age — the child yearning to be an adult and the adult wise enough to value childish insight. Here, Dacey's framing offers insight into that dichotomy of aging through life.
Similar tactics are used in the poem "At Dawn, the Cold Mailbox, Touched by Sunlight, is Steaming." The poet follows up the long title with two short lines:
      I want that
      kind of mail.
The humor here comes from the idea that the contents of the mailbox are causing the steam. But as the reader gives a small laugh, humor opens up the world within the poem. A monotonous early morning image focused on a familiar object on the street, a mailbox, is suddenly given mystery with an uncommon turn. The poet's wishful thinking — that they could find something interesting within the box — focuses the reader on what is actually an extraordinary event happening: a beautiful early-morning sunset and the scenic steam it has created.
A near mythical event is created out of the desire to see deeper into the everyday. Dacey draws in the reader with simplicity, with the ordinary image and releases a deep reflection from the inside. The simplicity and humor become, as he suggested, the "meat that's thrown to the dog by the thief" to entice the reader in so the poet can open up the world.
Of course, Dacey’s style is nothing new. As his reflection on old form suggests, simplicity is an idea as old as time. But Dacey gives a compelling argument for the steadfastness of the brief poem, the continued relevance of the sharp word. With his precision, he moves beyond the constraints of language and stimulates the mind of the reader to create imagery that reaches metaphysical depths on its own.

Works by Philip Dacey

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