Review of the poetry book:
“Autochthonous: Found in Place” by Dan Pohl with Illustrations by Jessie Pohl, 2014, ISBN 978-0985458669, Woodley Press, Topeka, Kansas
Dan Pohl’s “Autochthonous: Found in Place,” is a paean to his home state, Kansas, its inhabitants, his circle of family and friends. True to its title, the book focuses on the sense of Place that characterizes poetry from the heartland at its best. Phrases like “explorers came when the stars looked younger,” and “…field / Stones, picked out to plow a good life,” bring us into the fold of those who made this prairie what we see today, gave it its names, showed us all the ways they had prepared it for us. He offers advice and aid to those travelers who hurry through the wind-blown plains, never willing to take the time to see what one has to look a bit harder to find. In these pages he takes them by the hand, provides “the answer, hard enough to stamp lines / Onto the outside corners of their eyes.” Oh, and what telling answers he gives, patient, generous, insightful in the wisdom he gleans from the everyday, the phenomenal, the rare, the commonplace.
With images of prairie dogs burrowing “deep into their Kansas seas…Centuries deep,” and haylofts as “the ship keel of / Trusses,” he invites us to see with new eyes what we thought we knew. He is not afraid to build with his words on the page not only a metaphorical image, but a graphic picture. In “The Rule,” a simple story/fable of “Children…Quickly learn to step / To the side To climb the slope…for a softer / Smoother glide For the common / Good,” we can hold the page an arm’s length away and see two columns of staggered word steps bounding either side of the clean sledding path that runs down the center of the page. A brilliant example of “concrete” poetry at its most subtle and compelling.
The poetry here appeals to all the senses. “Saying Grace” enshrines home cooking and sends you to pulling pots out of the pantry looking for the deep fryer. After reading “Poet Elliott’s Advice…” we rush outside and put our ear to the corner light pole to share “its cark cello hum…a low-frequency Hindu ‘Om’.” In “Hidden Membership” we are made party to the secret life of a church’s folding chairs, and we feel their discomfort beneath our rumps as the meeting drones on.
It is with moments taken from familiar events of everyday life that Dan reveals his love for life and for his family. In “Feeding After Four,” he tires of shopping before his wife does, stops to watch fish in an aquarium, catches a pair of turtles feeding: “…his companion, who / Softly, tenderly, slides behind him / And slips her long slender neck / Under his left side near his heart. / She wedges under his jaw and pressures / Against his red-striped nose to snatch / His bit of bread as lovers often do.” He takes us, with those simple last four words, from the mundane to the sublime so quickly, so unexpectedly.
And occasionally Dan Pohl will take you further afield, to more exotic places, as well. Close your eyes and you are on a river steamer on the Niger: “The patient river rusted away / The name, each day the captain / Double drunk by noon” (from the poem “Fangs and Water at Kanthuri, 1890”). In “Lover’s Moment,” he writes: “I ride the bus to San Mida / The journey ends before me / I will run what I can / Though the wind will need to help / Raise your wish on Salida’s Hill.”
Below those words is a delicate pen and ink sketch of a kite dancing in the air. Scattered through the book are drawings by Dan’s daughter, Jessie. They embody her interpretation of her father’s words, show how those words float in her mind the way this kite floats in the sky. This book of poems is more than most: it contains a father’s words embellished and burnished to a brighter hue by his daughters sketches.
All in all, you could not do much better than to pick up a copy of this book, take it outside into the morning along with a steaming cup of coffee, and find yourself.
– Roy Beckemeyer