Going Nowhere

As Reviewed By: Brian Henry

Pilots and Navigators by Antony Dunn. Oxford University Press. 55pp. £6.99.

A first book of poetry titled Pilots and Navigators could indicate an adventurous sensibility, a youthful restlessness underpinning the poems. Unfortunately, Antony Dunn’s talents in his debut fall far short of the ambition implied by his title, producing a thoroughly pedestrian collection. Although he claims, ‘What I’m trying to talk about / is the speeding apart of things’, Dunn’s poems are slowed again and again by their lethargy of language.

[private]Through Pilots and Navigators, Dunn evinces a desire to connect poetic language to emotion, but fails to write memorable, powerful, or compelling poems. Some poems (‘Biology Lesson’, ‘Waltz’, ‘Engagement’) go nowhere because the mundanity of their subject matter is further undermined by a mediocre facility with language. This lack of skill becomes evident in the book’s many cliched and otherwise inept phrases-‘suddenly he is dead still’, ‘powerful as a god’, ‘the front wheel leaves the ground // for a breathless moment’, ‘stomach and heart mashed in clenched hold’. With their couplets and quatrains and syllabics, his poems appear well-crafted; however, with Dunn this technique frequently results in weak line breaks and inert lines.

In his many poems about travel, Dunn succumbs to the mindset of the tourist, carrying his preconceptions wherever he goes. Dunn would do well to direct his efforts elsewhere, since lines such as ‘We lose a morning to closed museums / and then ditch the map on Yeats’s doorstep’ are representative. The poet seems unaware of the problem of an Englishman in Dublin complaining about such trivialities, or talking about leaving the city with ‘no tan, no souvenirs, but we have drunk / Guinness within sight of the silver spring’.

Dunn does stumble into the occasional luminous moment or intriguing line (‘The skin-scent … / of garlic harsh as love on your hands’, ‘a gull trawling the tang of distant surf’) but too seldom to sustain anything like a worthwhile style or vision. He relies on the unearned epiphany, a worn strategy of observation inevitably followed by revelation; their predictability renders his epiphanies flaccid. Too satisfied with the bland and the mundane, even Dunn’s descriptions of extraordinary behavior are presented in the language of prose:

It is easy to ascribe our madness
to the moon…
but ours is not a werewolf mind. It’s just
that, sometimes, we surprise ourselves like this,
so we blame gods, astrologies, toxins.

In the staid and unrealized poems in Pilots and Navigators, Dunn exhibits little intensity or depth of imagination, a linguistic and rhythmic paucity that contribute to the general anemia of the collection. Because Dunn has not yet begun to serve language and the possibilities of language through poetry, these poems possess the typical weaknesses of a first volume, but none of the vigour.[/private]

About Brian Henry

Brian Henry has published poetry and criticism in numerous magazines around the world, including the Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review, Harvard Review, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, American Poetry Review, New American Writing, The Kenyon Review, New England Review, Stand, Overland, and Threepenny Review. His first book of poetry, Astronaut appeared recently in the UK and in Slovenia in translation. Astronaut was published in the US by Carnegie Mellon University Press. His second book, Graft, is forthcoming from New Issue Press and from Arc in England. He has edited the international magazine Verse since 1995, and was a Fulbright scholar in Australia in 1997-98, where he was Poetry Editor of Meanjin. He teaches at the University of Georgia.
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