The Assumption: Poems
Bryan D. Dietrich
Paperback: WordFarm, 2012.
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Reviewed By Chelsea Andres
Reading poetry is nerve-racking as a poetry lover. As each word follows another, I hold my breath in the hope that they will flow and have music—because nothing saddens a lyrical heart more than bad poetry. Thankfully, I could breathe easy after the first few stanzas of Bryan Dietrich’s The Assumption. This poet understands that good poetry demands composition like that of a symphonic melody. “Between the dust clouds calving sun to night,/ behind the blazing battlements of old/ auroral habiliments, dead supernova’s light,/ we wander.” A second impressive aspect of Dietrich’s work is that this music wasn’t written just for poetry’s sake. I can’t tell you how many times my father has asked about different poems I have shown him, “This poem is nice, but what does it mean?!” It seems there are many poets today writing just to frustrate my dad—though he is a poetry champ—crafting lyrically yet without substance. But Dietrich tows the line of music and meaning better than many. “Like orphans we lack,/ hunger for first embrace, to retrace the race./ In all we do, we echo the urge to crave…” The poems in Assumption are a welcome challenge to any poetry lover, masterfully stimulating the ear and mind. The premise of Assumption is based on “our long lust for cause,/ this need, perhaps greed, for eternal laws…” As if in a round table discussion, eight poems are written from the perspective of different brands of thinkers—sometimes mulling, sometimes rioting over the idea a transcendent power, God or otherwise. I really enjoyed this approach to a necessary topic and want to give kudos to Dietrich for his clever, intuitive poems. The theme is set up by the first poem, The Engineer, clearing the way for the attitudes of a Skeptic, an Astronomer, a Magician, a Writer, a Believer. Though these “characters” are distinct in their worldviews, I did find myself wishing the personalities were even more distinguished. Dietrich’s tone and pacing are fantastic but did not change from one “character” to another. Still, each poem is fascinating and strong in its representation of differing soapboxes. As the Astronomer says, “it’s all about knowing the difference between/ the sought after seeing, the seeming, the seen.”
These poems are intricate, many-faceted. Each is composed of seven parts, every part being a sonnet. Thankfully, contemporary poets are returning slowly but surely to the forms of poetry, disciplining themselves with rules on cadence, syllables, and rhyming schemes. Dietrich sets himself apart from the average free-form poet by committing to the sonnet form. Not only does this add linguistic complexity but also uncompromised musicality. Here are five lines from one of the Magician’s sonnets:
Each rock-pocked rockpile robots maneuver,
each rocket-picked planetary pocket emptied of “sin,”
ceases to astound with silence, yet appears,
all the more to confound, no longer a louver
between us and the next last light.
Dietrich is showing mastery over all the necessary poetic tools: alliteration, assonance, cadence, and phrasing. Though putting words together that start with the same letter (alliteration) can come easily for some, stringing together words with the same vowels sounds (assonance) is much more difficult.
worlds/ congeal benzath the peal of heaven plunder—
meteorites, lightning strikes—from whole herds
of icy shards shepherded by stellar sway
to planets, less then paradise, where crust gives way
to crack, crater, ponds of stagnant wonder
If there is any literary bone in your body, these stanzas make you happy. They are crafted; a poet’s job done well. Seemingly just as important as his craft, Dietrich uses eleven epigraphs in Assumption. Epigraphs are always a point of preference; either they add something to a literary work for you or they don’t. In this case, I enjoyed being directed where each “character” might go with his/her turn. Leading the Colonel’s poem is a line from W.H. Auden, an author who would never steer us wrong, “When I’m a veteran with only one eye, I shall do nothing but look at the sky.” This poem is one which uses humility in its manner toward the Assumption’s grand subject. “What captain never trips/ over the very sky he has undertaken/ to strip the mystery from?” I love the angles at which Dietrich approaches our failed and successful attempts to answer the question of transcendence. Though, I do contend with the very first epigram from Tom Stoppard: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.” To add another point of view to this party, isn’t it that there is something to discover that makes us matter? I was unnecessarily skeptical of The Assumption. Only from a desire to protect the form, did I squint when starting this new book of poetry. But I whole heartedly recant my presumption; the experience of reading Dietrich’s work renewed my love for poetry and desire to use it as a form of thought. There will always be a tension with poetry: should a poet’s meaning trump the poem’s music? Does one inevitably thwart the other? I commend Bryan Dietrich for finding a balance that few do and for treading philosophical waters poetically. As the Magician said, “Reach./ We all want rabbits, hats.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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