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Poetry Book Review:

Driving With Dante

by Brian Michael Tracy

driving with dante book cover Brian Michael Tracy has written a collection of poems in Driving With Dante that begs a reading and re-reading. He states right up front that his poetic heroes are Wallace Stevens and Larry Levis and it's easy to see the influence of both in his poetry. But don't think of him as a cheap imitation. He does have his own voice.

Driving With Dante opens with "A Night At The Soliloquy," a fantastic narrative poem that plays on words and offers a lightly humorous, anecdotal look at the literary devices and elements of speech used by poets. It's a fun read and a good opener for a chapbook of poems that gets a little bit more serious as you read. Tracy's humorous outlook on the world comes through loud in clear.

His strength lies in the way that he write narrative verse and makes it just as poetic as any lyric. That's a rare talent and it should not go unmentioned. Even still, Tracy's lyric poems are no less well crafted and whether he is being serious, as in "Downstream", or he is showing us his funny bone, as in the aforementioned "A Night At The Soliloquy", Brian Michael Tracy is full of surprises and vigorous literary insight. But he is not without his weaknesses.

While the writing is strong overall, there are a few weaker poems that could be extricated from "Driving With Dante" and the chapbook would be stronger as a whole. "A Little Bit Country" is one that comes to mind, a ditty that seems out of place with its allusions to Dolly Parton and Lucinda Williams - the title actually makes me think of Marie Osmond. "The Carousel at the Pier" is another one that doesn't quite reach the level of skill as other poems in "Driving With Dante". "The Letters I Still Keep", while well-written and moving - very moving - just doesn't seem to fit with the other poems as a part of the collection.

Nevertheless, Brian Michael Tracy is a talented and versatile poet. He has a good ear for music and a good eye for language. The shape and forms of the poems themselves match the tone and style. I particularly like his inventiveness, as in "When First We Planted Trees", where every line of the poem is repeated in reverse order so that the 24 lines actually say something new without falling into cliché or being trite in any way. Here's a reprint of the poem in full:

Daylight understood
when first we planted trees.
We let night take our dreams
to seed the valley floor.
Shade held against the sky
declared our freedom.
Words we knew and cared for
returned like guardians of order.
Paths we took but could not finish
reappeared on the horizon.
Islands were seen, and stars;
the resurrection of the moon, inexplicable.
The resurrection of the moon, inexplicable. Islands were seen, and stars reappeared on the horizon. Paths we took but could not finish returned like guardians of order. Words we know and cared for declared our freedom. Shade held against the sky to seed the valley floor we let night take our dreams. When first we planted trees daylight understood.
Only a poet of the highest caliber could pull that off as well as Tracy does. There is no staid line or image in the poem and almost none throughout the entire chapbook. Driving With Dante is as near a masterpiece of craft as any down-to-earth poet in the 21st century can muster. It is a delight and a joy to read. It lacks the depth of much academic poetry being published today and isn't quite as light as, say, Billy Collins, but those are virtues. One could say it isn't too heavy nor is it too light.

The book comes to a close with the title poem. "Driving with Dante" begins with this sharp image in the first two lines:

In Los Angeles the streets are wide
So I let Dante drive.
From there it just gets better. Again, Tracy flashes us with the brilliance of his prose-like narrative skills. His poetry is like a fusion of French Imagist with Hunter S. Thompson and Tracy's own wit.

Driving With Dante isn't perfect, but it's good. In the midst of light-hearted humor and serious reflection, the poet dedicates poems to his heroes, including Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Wallace Stevens. It's a beautiful, quick read and I highly recommend Driving With Dante.

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Driving With Dante by Brian Michael Tracy


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