Trouble and Honey by Jilly Dybka
Jilly Dybka is a generous poet. I know this because she gives her work away on Lulu.com, as do Bill Knott and others. Poet-editor-blogger Timothy Green claims that Lulu is losing some of its stigma. I don’t know why it should carry any stigma at all. There’s more poetry being written now -- more good poetry -- than foundations can support, presses and webzines can publish, or readers can read. If a writer wants to join the game under such circumstances, self-publishing seems like a fine way to do it. It’s true there is no editor or prize judge acting as a gatekeeper, but this just means that poets and readers must become more attentive. To that end, you’ll want to take a look at Dybka’s timely and eclectic Poetry Hut Blog.
Trouble and Honey is Dybka’s first full-length collection, available as a download from Lulu, and also as a paperback to buy, in case you prefer books. The poems are divided into two sections -- first, “Honey,” then “Trouble.” So right away there’s a little puzzle: what difference does the order make? It’s a safe bet that a poet as interested in form as Dybka has some reason for reversing these labels in title and text, although I haven’t come up with good guess yet. Many of her poems are formal puzzles, too: not the kind that are hard to understand, but the kind that delight in ingenuity. There’s a lot of rhyme, often end-rhyme. There are sonnets and sestinas and a terzanelle. There are prose-poems and poems in columns that can be read both across and down. There’s even some free verse. Dybka embraces and often acknowledges her influences -- Lucie Brock-Broido, Gerald Stern, Marina Tsvetaeva, and in one of my favorites among her allusive poems, Geoffrey Chaucer. Although she doesn’t mention it, The Canterbury Tales lies behind her sonnet sequence about Depression-era circus “freaks.” The series is preceded by a poem in couplets, “Here Begins the Book of the Tales of Circus Zimba.” (Zimba is the name of the poet’s parents, and presumably it used to be hers, too. No doubt her partner is an excellent person, but I don’t think anything could induce me to give up the name Jilly Zimba.) The introduction to the circus sequence, like Chaucer’s prologue, is a sketch of the poet, a writer working for the WPA:
In April, when flowers should have nodded,
And farmer’s draft horses should have plodded
Through fields agreen with rows of growing grain,
The dust bowl came and blew it all away.
What I like about this almost-parody is the way Dybka captures the slightly-off experience of reading Chaucer today. This is a literary in-joke, I guess, but it’s not a very exclusive one. Anybody who ever had to work through a bit of Chaucer in school might have suspected that the iambic pentameter wasn’t quite right, not to mention the effect on the modern ear of what seem to be slant rhymes and strange words like “agreen.” We were told, of course, that we would find it all perfectly regular if only we knew for sure how to pronounce Middle English, and that everyone said “agreen” in those days. Right.
Dybka likes games. In addition to formal poetry, she likes poker, roulette, and especially, baseball. In “Dock Ellis Pitches a No Hitter While on LSD,” she reaches into the past to imagine that legendary game as it might have seemed to the tripped-out pitcher. The book’s first section ends with “The Reanimation of Ted Williams’ Frozen Head,” which conjures up a futuristic “super-neuro-unificator machine” to bring Ted’s head back to life. Yet like most baseball poems, this one is really focused on the past:
Ted Williams’ head opens his eyes,
and the scientists all step forward
and the scientists peer down
like Zeuses. They ask: tell us how
it was, when the air was good,
and tell us about baseball
The first poem in the “Trouble” section is about baseball, too, but it’s really about the suicide of a young fan. Even as her subjects grow darker, however, Dybka retains her sense of humor. In “The Man With A Hook,” for example, she gives us a spooky sonnet (“Moo ha ha ha”) about a madman terrorizing “Lover’s Lane.” A pair of teen lovers hears his scratching:
the driver jerked the car into gear and
when he dropped his date off they took a look:
dangling from the car door: a bloody hook.
In a follow-up sonnet, “The Actual Story,” the madman gives us his perspective:
Wandered into Lover’s Lane. Had to tell.
You know, the secret government plot
to put alien implants in us all.
Instead, I lost my hook. Some idiot
teenager tore it out of my stump. Lost
that damn right hand all over again.
Fiddling with form as usual, Dybka ends the first sonnet with a closed couplet, but not the second one, where the hand is lost. These two poems and a few others might have benefitted from the touch of an editor. Shouldn’t “Lover’s Lane” be “Lovers’ Lane,” for instance? And should a person or even a “mason jar half-full of fate” really “lay” on its side? I’m not sure most of our literary presses have the time or the personnel to catch such things, but it’s even tougher when the poet has to be her own editor and proofreader.
The latter half of Trouble and Honey contains deft lyrics about a dying father (“Bop: Parkinson’s’) and the aftermath of war (“The Retired Vietnam Munitions Loader Attempts To Open A Can of Biscuits”), but when it comes to the war in Iraq, some control is lost. At times -- in “Wartime Terzanelle,” for example -- the demands of fixed form help keep the writing tight. But in several of the other war lyrics, as the poet herself says, “I am a rant” (“Poem by an American VII”). There’s also something histrionic about the death-knitter figures -- Handiwork Woman and Bone Maker Woman -- who sit on their benches and tie up the knots of war. Such outraged caricatures really only work for Dickens. In the last poem, Dybka returns to the elegiac mode, which to my mind suits her better than the rant. This is one of her truncated sonnets, twelve lines with no couplet and -- in this case -- a rhyme scheme that trails off to just a hint at the end:
Some things are just lost for good. That idea
after dinner, Your cat when you were ten.
Gone, all gone away, raindrops in the sea.
As time unravels, the lost things sweeten
with simplicity, heighten with yearning,
or are quickly dismissed. Sometimes the lost
whisper wisdom. A belated warning:
please do not take this for granted. The cost
is a warm lover dressing at sunrise,
a goldfinch carefully tending her song.
The cost is a stream of careless goodbyes
spent for each surprising, certain leaving.
The tone here is just right, I think. Nostalgia can be a disease, but this is not an entirely nostalgic poem. Some lost things do inspire yearning, and some are rightly dismissed. Even regret has its uses in the present: “please do not take this for granted.” This is poetry that encourages attention and patience, as does much of Dybka’s best work.
Trouble and Honey by Jilly Dybka
Bear Shirt Press