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Hard Looking:
Richard Greene's Dante’s House

richard greene dante house
Richard Greene, Dante’s House
Montreal: Véhicule Press, 2013.

Dante’s House, Richard Greene’s fol­low up to Box­ing the Com­pass, which won the 2010 Gov­er­nor General’s Award, shows once again his flu­ency with blank verse nar­ra­tives, rhyming cou­plets, and this time, an extended terza rima account of a sum­mer teach­ing stint in Siena, Italy. His new book’s open­ing poems take the reader, for starters, to Tulsa, Okla­homa; post-earth­quake Haiti; a Cana­dian prison; and Yan­kee Sta­dium. Greene has been at these cat­a­logues of human expe­ri­ence for over twenty years, and the book’s twelve poems show a sym­pa­thetic nar­ra­tor mov­ing among the poor, the par­a­lyzed, the jailed and the very unlucky with a hum­ble aware­ness of his cor­re­spond­ing good for­tune.

Two facts emerge by the third poem. One is that this poet brings a con­ver­sa­tional touch and even a street­wise vigour to the for­mal con­straints he employs. The sec­ond is that the visual details in each piece build a case for Greene’s being one of our best travel poets. Dante’s House begins with “Oils,” a por­trait of Greene’s mother, Anna, paint­ing inter­nal seascapes while watch­ing The Edge of Night and Coro­na­tion Street on a “notion­ally portable” TV that “occu­pies half the kitchen table.” This elegy sets the tone for the kind of hard look­ing that informs the ensu­ing nar­ra­tives. How­ever it is with the sec­ond poem, “Kitchens,” an unset­tling stopover in two strangers’ houses, and “Cor­rec­tions,” a look inside a medium secu­rity prison, that Dante’s House spins into high gear. In “Kitchens” the author trav­els around his town to have a peti­tion signed and, in the process, meets a cou­ple whose grown daugh­ter is both deaf and blind “bent far for­ward, hold­ing / her arm as guide.” Later, he chats with a man whose own severely hand­i­capped child uses a chair­lift to descend the stairs to fam­ily meals. The author admits to his great good luck at hav­ing a fit son wait­ing for him in his car. In “Cor­rec­tions” we learn early on what a shank is: “some soup spoon snatched / and ground against the whet­stone of the bars” or “a razor blade bound into a pencil’s / eraser tip.” Though the poem pro­files its pris­on­ers with the faintest fil­i­gree of humour, Greene’s tone is never facile but instead serves to under­score the human­ity of the observer.

Two other poems are worth high­light­ing in the first half of this book: “Crooked Eclipses,” an excel­lent elegy to a men­tor and friend who lived in Tulsa; and “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince,” a visit the author made to the Hait­ian cap­i­tal forty years after Papa Doc Duvalier’s bloody 1963 mas­sacres. How­ever, the title poem of Dante’s House is rea­son by itself to pick up Greene’s fourth col­lec­tion. This 32-page tour de force about mod­ern-day Siena, Renais­sance art, horse rac­ing, grow­ing cul­tural amne­sia and Ital­ian his­tory is the equiv­a­lent of a twelve-foot lake stur­geon. You see it pass under­neath your canoe but your punter’s brain takes a few moments to reg­is­ter what has glided past. The poem’s 29 can­tos are full of obser­va­tions about Berlusconi’s Italy super­im­posed over its 15th–cen­tury equiv­a­lent, and it brims with wry self-dep­re­ca­tion, sad­ness, mer­ri­ment, raillery, loss, tourist headaches, wise locals and Greene’s phe­nom­e­nally acute traveller’s eye for what makes Siena sin­gu­lar.

Peter Richard­son’s most recent book is Bit Parts for Fools, Ice House Poetry, 2013.


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