“But you are allowed to want more than one thing.” Permission and openness to multiplicities characterize the thirty prose poems in Dalton Day’s chapbook Alternatives (Bottlecap Press, 2017). In the poem that this line is from, hornets that invade the body are not a menace “but architects” of sturdiness and safety — they engender a surprising reimagining of the self as “a new home.” Throughout the book, strangeness proliferates. There is a porousness between the domestic realm of the human and the fantastical realm of the animal that is sometimes unsettling, sometimes comforting, and frequently the locus of a flash of poetic insight. Alternatives takes place in a space of possibility that is just aslant, just outside the world as we know it every day.
In poem 12, the unusual animal scenario that kickstarts the poem is that “Rabbits can do things we can’t. Like, for instance, they can cough up their hearts.” However, even a rabbit that coughs up its heart still promptly runs off once it becomes aware of a human presence. “I stood there, staring at the heart, thinking about you, sure, but thinking above all else what it must feel like, to leave a thing you thought you needed so much behind. & what it must feel like to realize you didn’t need it, really, at all.” The rabbit’s heart becomes an object of reflection about a personal relationship for the speaker. This is in one way quite predictable – it’s not an enormous leap from a coughed-up heart to a lost romance – but the multiplicities of the “you” make this a messier proposition. Who left their heart behind, and who “didn’t need it, really”? It’s possible to read this as either the “I” or the “you” or even, in some way, both, which destabilizes typical breakup dynamics. There’s a sadness to this realization, but also the prospect that “what it must feel like” may be liberating as well. This is the crossroads of Day’s imagination and insight at their best, where the odd and the familiar overlap and inform one another.
Many of the poems in Alternatives straddle the comforting and the unsettling by using voice as a marker of presence and absence. They read as snippets of overheard dialog, as if the reader were eavesdropping on a phone call, able to catch only half the conversation. Take, for instance, the beginning of poem 18: “When I die, hurl my body into the sun. No, really. I’ve looked into it.” The protest against the speaker’s post-mortem wishes is elided and left to the reader’s imagination. However, the simple, chatty “No, really” indicates the presence of another person and underscores the absence of the missing interlocutor’s voice, even as the discussion revolves around the speaker leaving this world, both metaphorically and literally, in death. The speaker’s last wishes are glibly, lightly expressed, and the ease of the tone belies the serious and disturbing subject.
Voice, the thing itself, is tied elsewhere in other ways to themes of leaving or missing someone. In the final poem, number 30, where there is again a muddling of the second person pronoun, there’s a desperate need to be heard because “your voice . . . doesn’t sound like your voice anymore.” Is this a true second person “you,” or a “you” as a stand-in for the “I”? And what, in either case, does this voice sound like? “It sounds like the opposite of missing, & then the opposite of that. Your scream, or your voice, or your echo causes an avalanche. After the avalanche ceases, you stay very quiet.” Day’s language doubles back on itself. “The opposite of missing, & then the opposite of that” pauses the reader and the withholding of the repetition of “missing,” the convolution of the linguistic construction, makes the “missing” an even more intense focal point. It’s the thing that creates the avalanche. And in the silence that follows, “You begin to climb.”
Day is certainly having a moment in 2017, with several releases in addition to Alternatives, including the full-length Interglacials (Fog Machine, 2017). These prose poems take up some similar themes, such as domestic spaces and love and its loss or potential loss. In this volume, trees, eggs, and dogs appear in important roles throughout. Though there’s much overlap and many of Day’s tropes carry through both books, there’s less fragmentation here, more of a stable I/you story from start to finish. Interglacials narrates a romantic relationship, in joy and anger and sorrow, set in the metaphoric space between ice ages, asking from the very first poem: “What kind of animal is able to live / off warmth alone?” Threaded throughout this book are lights and fires, sources of warmth that harm and heal by turns.
The intermingling of the human and animal is still among Day’s chief obsessions, particularly in domestic scenes. The consequences of these interactions are often mixed, unexpected. For instance, “Caniform” begins when “bears broke into our home.” This could have been the set-up for a mauling of the shared home. Instead, the bears have arrived “to save us because the house was on fire & there was no way out.” These soft, weepy bears curl around the pair until the smoke clears. The fire doesn’t hurt the couple; at the end, the bears are gone and they remain. There’s a similar weaving of sorrow and love in “Dog Tree,” where the “you” of the poem plucks the canine blooms “one by one from the dog tree & you bring them into your house & there are dogs everywhere & the dog tree is empty & you don’t notice when the tree dies & is carried away by wind & decay because you love these dogs so much.” The dogs think this is heaven, the human is happy, but the tree that enabled this domestic bliss withers unobserved and ignored. Day’s poems leave it to the reader to tease out the implications – these stories break off just as a kind of warm contentment settles into the scene.
Yet there’s anger and resentment and misery in this relationship story as well. Part III begins with an untitled poem, presented here in its entirety:
I hate you & you hate me & we spend all our time trying to sabotage each other. You set all of my parrots free even though their wings are clipped & they are defenseless. While you are sleeping I cut your hair off & I set it on fire so your room & everything in it smells like burning hair. God we hate each other so very much. Both of us left so long ago.
Fire, in this poem, wrecks the material comfort of the bedroom, but there’s no closeness between the couple in the aftermath, as in “Caniform.” This is the heat of mutual destruction. The longer sentences, the aggregating ampersands of damage done, give way at the end to shorter declarative statements that underscore the sad rage of the scene, of the ways that lovers can leave one another emotionally before doing so physically. There are more domestic disruptions to come – black holes that swallow home and couple, the “I” awakening shot through by an arrow, lost kingdoms, a heart in the right place that beats irregularly anyway. “You’re drawing a kingdom that is far away from where we are now. I can’t imagine it goes any other way,” says the speaker in “Whale.” There’s an inevitability at work here; the “I” isn’t able to see things playing out any differently. To be sure, there’s still light and joy amidst the surreal chaos, but the notes of leaving, of loss, recur.
In the untitled poem that begins Part IV, Day writes: “The sun is always bright unless it isn’t & the trees are always strong unless they aren’t.” These admissions of how “unless” undercuts “always,” these acknowledgments that the most hoped-for conditions or outcomes can’t be sustained unto perpetuity, haunt the end of the poem. The light of the sun is “always bright” except — of course, of course, of course — “unless it isn’t.” And even so, the poem concludes: “We are always the opposite of terrified. We are always alive & we are always breathing & we are always kissing each other for the first time.” And so, the reader knows, a host of unspoken “unless” statements go with each assertion. An undertow of doubt and fear sweeps beneath the sweetness in the relationship. The possibilities narrow to an inevitable end.
As the title indicates, the poems in Interglacials ponder not only the effects of warmth but also of time on love. The first lines of the untitled proem — “If, in a thousand years, / or maybe two, // (millennia are so much easier)” — call out the difficulties of understanding what is happening in the moment. “I don’t want to run anymore I want to hold things & love them so much it’ll take a thousand years for them to really know that’s what I was doing,” the speaker says near the end of the book in “I’m Tired of Wolves & So Are You So Let’s Find a Different Way to Run.” What sort of love is this that can’t be perceived fully by the beloved without the passage of vast spans of time? What sort of love is this that requires more than a mortal lifespan to comprehend? Ultimately, the love that Day depicts cannot escape temporality, cannot elude finality.
Both Alternatives and Interglacials are books built of surreal prose poems, in the tradition of Russell Edson and Charles Simic. Although perhaps some pruning of repetitious sentiments could have been made to each collection, Day’s work at its best evidences a strong imagination and a charming poetic voice that offers both delight and complexity.
heather hughes hangs her heart in Somerville and Miami. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Barrow Street, decomP, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Sidereal Magazine, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. heather is also a writer for Mass Poetry online, an associate editor for Scoundrel Time, and a letterpress printer. She MFA-ed at Lesley University and ALM-ed at Harvard University Extension School. All her tattoos have wings. Find her online at birdmaddgirl.com.