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”.