Oyster Boy Review 08  
  January 1998
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A Cure For Optimism, by Paul Dilsaver

Kevin McGowin

A Cure For Optimism: Poems.
Paul Dilsaver.
Sky & Sage Books, 1993.
72 pages, unavailable (chapbook).
ISBN: 0963700006

Paul Dilsaver is a homeopathic practitioner of poetry: he goes for the throat, and he usually gets it. But the cure for the disease is found in the very diseased tissue which makes it unbearable, and thus the title and the essence of this volume—for Dilsaver, "optimism" is a trite and naive luxury we can no longer afford if there is to be any real understanding of and deliverance from the dark and violent reality of human existence, while the "cure" of the title seems to be found in a direct and unflinching acceptance of the disease that lies not even under the surface of life but which lingers on it, and which must be faced and acknowledged if it's to be transcended.

And face it is exactly what Dilsaver does, but with a maturity and sophistication that underlies a real sense of purpose, a quality that's too often absent from contemporary American poetry. The poems are direct and unpretentious in their language without being trite and redundant like the bad coffee-house Baudelaire that often comes from lesser writers' treatments of human suffering; Dilsaver's theme is not so much death as decay, and the images of the cancerous and self-perpetuating lack of reflection that renders life into an empty shell.

The volume is divided into five titled groups of poems of short to medium length, the strongest of which are stark and breathless narratives in which the speaker seems to tell a story in fragmented gasps through the poet's use of short lines, abrupt breaks and minimal punctuation. The imagery is precise and delivered with little superfluous detail, as the book establishes and maintains a tension between the traditionally "optimistic" framework of Biblical allusions against the images of the sterile science and technology that attacks our physical cancers and fails just as religion fails to cure the ever-present maladies of the spirit. While it must be said that some of the metaphors are rather predictable and thus fall flat ("symphony of screams", "the highway clots . . .", "the emotional rake / through my brain"), Dilsaver hits more often than he doesn't, and hits hard, with powerful ironies and poignantly funny observations ("it's a god eat god world").

In general, I find the poems written in the first person ("Confession", the title poem, "Just Remembering", "Sharpening the Craft", "Lessons in Zen Pessimism") to be less successful than the third-person narratives, in which the detachment creates an ironic comment on the subject and avoids a self-conscious awareness of a "poet writing poetry"—"Dead End", "Evangelist", "Street Curse" "Cosmic Shit Poem"and "Orbit" for example are very fully realized examples of Dilsaver at his narrative best. I say "in general," though, for the most profoundly affecting pieces in the volume manage to bring the narrator to the fore as a character involved in a cycle of events outside his control: "Message Found on the Alleged Corpse", with its Simic-like mastery of the "I", for example, or "Fortuna's Wheel", "The Worm Squeaks" and "Donna Bromley", which are, for me, the finest poems in the book.

Dilsaver's poems are insightful and intelligent, and are thankfully neither the dry and academic "MFA poetry" of many of the more revered journals nor the street neo-beat ramblings of an ephemeral underground. And one more thing must be said about the work: Paul Dilsaver is a master of closure. The only contemporary American artists who can do it as well, in my opinion, are Charles Simic, Andrew Hudgins and Lou Reed. The sordid metamorphoses into the metaphysical ("Memory of the Fish") and the winter ends with the possibility and the hope of a rebirth, a "cure." Rarely does one finish a Dilsaver poem without gaining a new perspective on the implications of all that has come before it in the piece or even in the volume as a whole—and this is both central and essential to the success of the work of a poet like Paul Dilsaver, who disturbs, befuddles, pierces and writhes, but who is, at the end, strangely and inexplicably optimistic.