Dennis H. Lee’s Tidal Wave, inaugural winner of the Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize for a first book of poetry for a poet 70 years or older, does what all great works of literature do: it uses specific moments to reveal universal truths about shared human experiences. This extraordinary collection has a heavy emphasis on place, beginning and ending with images of a Coney Island childhood, touching down throughout the book in Brooklyn, the suburbs, and the Catskills. Lee uses vivid imagery to evoke these places, like the final line of his opening poem “Coney Island, July 4, 1952”: “Tonight’s sky will be brighter than the Ferris wheel.”
While many of the poems in this collection evoke the past, many of them also speak to the experience of growing older. The second poem in the book is titled “Measuring Our Time,” and the collection itself seems to do just that, moving between past and present. The poem “Candle in the Universe” is a funny and poignant memory of an elementary school astronomy lesson, while several poems narrate the absurdities of aging, especially in connection with the medical establishment, such as “The Man Who Had Nothing Wrong” in which a series of doctors and specialists perform tests on the speaker determined to find something wrong with him.
Indeed, the absurd plays a role in this collection. Consider the poem “The Barking Woman,” a fable-poem about a woman who wouldn’t stop barking, and the poem “Dryer Sheets,” which comments on suburban absurdity with a narrative about a woman who puts dryer sheets in her garden because she thinks they smell better than roses. Lee’s use of humor is one of the most entertaining aspects of this collection, including the hilarious poems “So What, You Wet Your Pants” and “Tea and Cream with a Coffee Bean” which follows a miscommunication with a barista.
But there’s a more serious side to Lee’s poetry as well. In the second half of the book, there is a series of four poems—“Blood Room,” “On Dark Wings,” “Fortune Cookie,” and “I Wish Now I Could Have Buried You”—that narrate the loss of a spouse. While the poems here focus on small moments, cumulatively they have a power and wash over the reader with, yes, a “tidal wave” of emotion. “On Dark Wings,” in particular, is a moving meditation on loss, and the use of repetition adds to the power of the poem, the first four stanzas beginning with the line “I held her hand,” and the final stanza breaking that pattern to state, “I held her dead hand.” It’s a heartbreaking poem, but an honest portrayal of grief.
Lee’s collection is one of heart and humor that will appeal to readers young and old, near and far, but I believe will be particularly resonant with readers who grew up on the East Coast in 1950s and 60s. This collection runs the gamut of human emotion and experience, but ends with jubilance in the face of fear. “Tidal Wave,” the final poem in the collection, is a long poem that ends with a memory. Lee writes, “I remembered a wave / at Coney Island when I was about six that lifted / me and carried me up the beach. People screaming. / Water began to cover me. Rain water. A deluge of rain. / I was running so incredibly wet and happy. That’s it.” It’s a powerful image to end the collection, but a fitting one for a collection so powerful.
About the author:
Jacqueline Vogtman is the Editor of Kelsey Review.