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The Girls in Bright Dresses Dancing (2010): In the Woods There Grew a Tree

Gerry Grubbs, The Girls in Bright Dresses Dancing (Dos Madres Press, 2010)

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And a fine, fine tree was he.

Something odd happened with this book. My spreadsheet tells me I started reading it in late June of this year, which coincides with my memory. But that’s where they diverge. I swear I remember finishing it a few days later, but there was no finish date or rating on my spreadsheet, nor was there a header in my review file. But the bookmark was gone from the book; why would I take out the bookmark if I hadn’t finished it? Faced with this dilemma, I did what, I should think, anyone would do; I started over again. Once again (I think), I finished it in a few days, bit I remember liking it a great deal in June; November’s perusal found me more nits to pick, but not enough that I would consider not recommending it.

If you’ve been reading my reviews for any length of time, you know that where poetry is concerned, I believe there is only one inviolable rule: show, don’t tell. Which means that once I come across a bit like this, a book has pretty much already failed:

“Remember the taste
Of the watermelon we ate
While listening
To his third symphony
And how majestic
That red juice was”
(–59, from “The Rain”)

You’re going to call attention to the taste of a watermelon and then not even attempt to describe it? That’s pretty much the definition of the opposite of poetry—tell, don’t show. But there’s enough good in this book to have put me in mind of a rejection letter I received back in the late eighties, not long after I’d started submitting stuff to magazines. The editor included a personal bit which included the sentence “You’ve got the craft down, but I suspect it’s the art you’re after.” Twenty-five years ago I only heard the criticism and not the compliment (after all, it was a rejection letter), but these days I think I understand a little more of what he was on about, and that’s exactly what I felt when I was reading a lot of the material in this book. The work here is technically proficient on pretty much every level, which makes the tell-don’t-show stuff all the more disappointing. But when Grubbs lucks onto something concrete, this book shines.

“I am not one
For causal conversation
I can’t just ask
The baker
If the bread is fresh

I want to know
How many times
He touched it

What he hugged
The flour in

How the wet
And dry ingredients
Reacted when
They realized
They were no longer
Separate but mixed”
(–55, from “Daily Bread”)

Good, but unfortunately, not all that it could have been. ** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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