Works & Days
Winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize
Emotionally and intellectually engaging, Dean Rader’s debut collection of poetry undertakes provocative questions about identity in original, ambitious, and playful ways. In a style that is at once both traditional and experimental, these poems map the terrains of high and popular culture with serious meditation and wry humor. Characters in Rader’s interactive landscape include Wallace Stevens, Michael Jackson, Dorothea Lange, Arvo Part, and even Frog and Toad. Like its namesake, Works and Days by the Greek poet Hesiod, Rader’s work takes on the great issues of any era—our attempts to make sense of dreams, duty, and the divine.
On the road with epistemology and a company of poets and philosophers, Frog has his work cut out for him. Beginning with a funeral and ending with day’s end, the poems in this ambitious collection seek—not conciliation, not reconciliation—but what you could call real locale in terms of the poetic tradition. Playing with the conventions that—depending upon your aesthetics—either free or bind us, Works & Days asks timely questions, never forgetting that Self too, is a fundamental part of the landscape. This is a serious book that never takes itself too seriously. It could be a primer for MFA programs everywhere.
—Claudia Keelan, 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize judge
Dean Rader reads his past, reads the landscape of his native land, especially Oklahoma, through the lens of previous poets, such as Hesiod, his first tutelary guide, who lead him to a vibrant, innovative, and fresh new poetry, who point the way to his own formal making, his poignant American version of life and labor, Works & Days.
“Don’t just sing; split us open” is the two-headed imperative in Rader’s meticulously crafted, dazzling book that elates while it simultaneously interrogates and shivs us. Caroming between labor, lineage, salutation and self-examination, Works & Days invites us to watch TV on Sunday with Hesiod as host; God, Toad, Frog as the guests who won’t leave; and O’Hara, Stevens, Neruda and Motherwell as visitors dropping by for a beer and Sudoku. Although Rader’s poems vibrate with high-voltage wit, they are equally occupied with “trespass, skin-spark, and elegy” as they lock themselves under the tongue so we may always know their necessary and sustaining song.
Dean Rader’s engaging alter-egos take the sting out of the divided self. The reader is constantly—pleasurably—at risk, compelled to think about/laugh at the human condition, as is the woman next to the narrator in seat 7D, “Because / the next line is this: / She will die before I do…” (this, in the collection’s opening poem!). But we are in such good hands – and the best party is always in the lifeboat.
“There is no anticipation like waiting for the poem you ordered to arrive,” Dean Rader writes. Well, the poems we ordered have arrived. Works & Days is a shipment of poetic pleasure, a care package to get readers through a dark, unpoetical time. Playful, probing, frequently philosophical (and sometimes mock-philosophical, and sometimes both), these entertaining and liberating poems know their tradition and engage with it without being confined by it.
The sky is big in Oklahoma, but, of course, it extends further than one imagines. Thus Dean Rader’s mind in Works & Days, which begins in Rader’s native Oklahoma and moves ever onward and backward and outward in a trekking meditation on where we are (moving forward), what we are (the traveler but also the logos), what we’ve been, where we’re headed. Are we Wallace Stevens in the grave dissipating into the world’s system? Or are we Whitman admiring the long hair of graves? Are we the dust bowl farmer? Or Hesiod logging the worker’s long journey toward death? Are we the Native shaman or the old couple on the airplane? Are we Frog or are we Toad? Dallas or Delhi? The corrido or the poem of experimental form. Yes. And yes. They all and more are here, and so we become; and “all transformation is addition”.
What’s most delightful is how Rader balances the heaviness of that observation against the lightness of the characters of Frog and Toad. Absurdity and lyricism, humor and serious contemplation, bump up against one another in pleasing ways.
It’s hard to say what I love most in this glorious debut volume; is it the glorious Frog & Toad poems, the love poems, or the one-on ones with mentors—Stevens, Pound, and Wright? What’s clear is that re-reading only intensifies the delight of Dean Rader’s Works & Days. There’s something reminiscent of John Donne in Rader’s poems, the earnest spiritual questing of the sonnets and sermons counterbalanced with delightful and unexpected wit. Contemplate the marriage of “Batter my heart” with the playful “Mark but this flea…” and you’ll get a sense of his range. I think what first won me to this book was the authenticity of Rader’s voice and a striking ease in shifting, swift changes of tone.
Humor, not all that common in the lyric tradition, is standard in Rader's work, where the touch is light, yet serious. A small-town boy from Oklahoma, Dean Rader's anything but provincial, creatively blurring boundaries between agrarian and urban, ancient and postmodern, Anglo and indigenous, and far from inscrutable, unlike the poet he imagines in his voluptuous, prize-winning poem "Hesiod in Oklahoma, 1934." Whether he is writing a love poem, giving instructions on how to buy a gun in Havana, imagining a parallel universe while star-gazing, musing on a Motherwell painting, or ordering up a poem the way you might shop online, Rader is witty, smart, provocative.
—Poetry Flash, Dec 2011/Jan 2012
Works & Days is, more importantly, a very good book.... in its best moments, Works & Days pays homage to the poets of the past only in order to transcend them.
—West Branch, 2012
Works & Days brims with allusions, playfulness, formal experimentations, interlocking themes and narratives, and above all serious meditations on how we exist. Kudos to this book for the high bars it sets for itself regarding craft and content, and kudos for the confidence and grace with which it sails over them.
—Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Winter 2012
See interview at The Reader’s Review
Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral, I Write a Poem about Wallace Stevens
Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness
How to Buy a Gun in Havana
Reading Yeats’ “The Second Coming” on January 1, 2001
Self Portrait: Blizzard
Hesiod in Oklahoma, 1934
Self Portrait: Rejected Pop Song
Song for the Shell Shaker
PowerPoint Presentation on “The Sonnet”
The First Poem
The Poem You Ordered
Frog Loses Sleep Puzzling over Parallel Universes
Talking Points [Love Poem]
A Map of Unfinished Love Poems
Self Portrait: Rejected Inaugural
Self Portrait: Hesiod in Iraq
Self Portrait: Frank O’Hara to the Distended Angel
Self Portrait: India to Texas
Self Portrait: One on One with Ezra Pound
Corrido for the Lost Girls of Juarez
Love Poem in 5 Couplets + 1 Line
Contingency Triptych: Three Self Portraits
As Dido to Aeneas
As Robert Hayden to Michael Jackson
As Hesiod to Dorothea Lange
While Looking Up the Etymology of “Country” in the OED, I Come Across “Cornucopia”
Frog Seeks Help with Anger Management
Ocean Beach at Twilight: 14
Self Portrait at 30
On Reading Miguel Hernandez at 31, the Age of His Death
Self Portrait as Antinomy: 32
Reading Charles Wright in the Year of the Dragon: 33
The Last Day of 34
What This Is: 35
Journal Entry on Love: 36
Self Portrait: Prayer at 37
Frog and Toad Sing the Birthday Blues: 38
Waking Next to You on My 39th Birthday or The Other Arm
Partial Elegy for the Self at 40
Ocean Beach at Twilight: 41
Ite Misse Est
About the Author
Dean Rader is professor of English at the University of San Francisco where he held the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair. He has published widely in the fields of poetry, literary studies, American Indian studies, and visual and popular culture. He has received the Crab Creek Review Poetry Prize (2007) and The Sow’s Ear Poetry Prize (2009). He regularly contributes op-eds and book reviews to San Francisco Chronicle and blogs at The Weekly Rader, SemiObama and 52 Gavins. A native of Weatherford, Oklahoma, he now lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.
For more information, check out Rader’s website at: http://deanrader.com/
Featured poet on Eyewear blog at: http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2010/10/featured-poet-dean-rader.html
See interview at The Reader’s Review