Book Review Archives

Within the Shadow of a Man

By: Dennis Sampson
Reviewed by: Russ Kesler
Settlement House, 2009
$12, Paper; $40, Special Signed Limited Cloth Edition

The poems in Dennis Sampson’s Within the Shadow of a Man often address big questions such as evil and injustice, as a few random titles might suggest: "Mysteries," "Naming the World," "Brotherly Love," and "Concerning the Suffering of Others.” These poems are more often interested in ideas than in things. And fittingly, the poems are structurally capacious, usually having long lines and sometimes running to four or five pages.

Consequently, this is not a book that most readers would make it through in one sitting. There is a lot to think about here, and the poems obey the impulse to delve deeply into the subject at hand. Such investigations often demand the introduction of many trials and proofs, many personalities. In “The Humiliated,” characters as diverse (and numerous) as a “molester in checkered pants,” a “Supreme Commander,” Mandelstam and Ahkmatova, Isaac, Abraham and Abel, Stalin and Mussolini, Young Goodman Brown, and others make an appearance. Such exhaustive examinations, it could be said, might not ring the bell for readers who gravitate toward lyric poems—the tautness and economy of a Kay Ryan, for instance. But give Sampson’s poems the patience they deserve, and most readers will find a satisfying blend of earnest thought—a fine intelligence at work—and often a subtle humor that helps grease the wheels of all of that brain work.

In “Wrightsville Beach at Night,” for instance, the speaker is staring out into the darkness over the ocean, possessed by thoughts of mutability and the “misery of need.” But here is how the poem ends: 

        you can do one of two things if you are me and one of  
                them has to do 
        with what is beautiful. This is one life

        beneath the sky drifting with Castor and Pollux along 
        with the dusk and the sea. Death 
        lets go. Death relents. What loves you sees you leave 
        and goes on living.

Yes, there’s Sampson’s familiar return to death, etc. But that weight is mitigated, if not absolved, by the wry way in which the poem leaves unsaid what the other of the “two things” might be, and by the implication that this is the solution only “if you are me,” which, of course, we are not.

In fact, it could be said that Sampson’s speakers make a virtue of that exhaustive cogitation about death. Not only human mortality is fodder here, but also the various ways in which animals meet their ends. The speaker watches as a python gorges itself on a gazelle, deciding that “the python holds its tongue for once, God swallowed, / gone. And there is light on the plains. There is awe.” And as he watches a buzzard circle “in diminishing ellipticals,” he remembers watching vultures with his father, when the bird’s name was nothing but another word: “ “‘Buzzard,’ I say, small child / answering to a father who points up expectantly to tree, / moon, cloud. I am naming the world, nothing more.” Sampson seems to be aware of his fascination with death, and that at least allows the many poems that focus on that subject to achieve differing tonalities and an ambivalence about ultimate conclusions that enrich the work.

In the end, Dennis Sampson is obsessed by the awareness of evil, and the many ways in which the past obtrudes on the present. If the subjects of his obsessions are dark ones, we can hardly blame him for writing out of his heart and his intellect. These poems embrace the ambiguities that lie at the heart of reflections concerning mortality. It takes courage to face such questions, and even greater courage to acknowledge that the answers, such as they are, don’t often offer much consolation. Aug 2010

Russ Kesler teaches writing at the University of Central Florida.