“The Assumption,” by Bryan D. Dietrich (WordFarm, 84 Pages, $15)
In spite of the title, these are not religious poems. ... Or are they? Though Dietrich doesn’t use the word “Assumption” to mean clearly the taking into heaven of the Virgin Mary, he does seem to have in mind the taking-it-for-granted that Something above us exists.
Some of the lines in these 57 poems suggest that the Something may be God. But Dietrich, a professor at Newman University, comes closer to identifying some heedless power, as in the shivery fifth poem of the section called “The Astronomer,” which asks us to imagine an “interstellar intelligence / of protoplasmic cloud ... a casteless, chlorophyllic civilization.” Having imagined that, the poet says, “Now try to imagine such species care, or give a techno-damn.”
Well, Dietrich does care, at least in this collection. That — the intensity of his questioning, his imagining — is what gives the poems the power to keep a reader butting through the tangles of recondite allusions to monsters, myths, current events, wars and philosophies, not to mention the syntax that can be as jungly as this, referring to our inevitable lack of knowledge about unseen things: “that great gaping lack smacks us with its loss / of being loss, becomes a presence, lung / for those who cannot breathe, but wholly, space.”
In spite of the modern-plus effects these poems make, their forms are traditional. All but the last two poems are sonnets of the standard 14 lines, though the lines are of irregular length and meter. The poems within each section are connected to each other tail-in-mouth. They even rhyme, mostly.
The modernness comes in good part from Dietrich’s snatching of sounds and images like grains from whatever cosmic dust clouds come screaming past his head. He can read, as a result, like a parody of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Each rock-pocked rockpile robots maneuver, / each rocket-picked planetary pocket emptied of ‘sin,’ / ceases to astound with silence.”
The final poem in the collection, not a sonnet, has the narrator as a grade-school student discovering, and being horrified by, a book saying the universe must end. “Burn it, hide it,” he tells his teacher.
And the 56th and last of the sonnets, in the section called “The Believer,” ends with something like relief after the groping, often brilliant turmoil of most of the book. “When / those great glowing prayer wheels ... / come suckling for me like all God’s children / drawn down from the deep,” it says, “I will go, cold, without question, / even trusting. It’s a fusty blade, religion.” Then, as if the poet had paused to reflect that this final sonnet should convey an extra bit of assurance, he adds a 15th line, “We all must greet it, fleshless, in the end.”