Hard Looking: Richard Greene's Dante's House

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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