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Einstein Considers a Sand Dune by James Doyle

Reviews of Einstein Considers a Sand Dune

Jeanne Emmons, Briar Cliff Review, 2005

In a world with a short attention span, James Doyle’s unhurried, precise hand lifts us up to envision ourselves and our age as part of the sweep of time. In this book he explores Einstein’s fourth dimension. History seems folded back on itself, creating new connections in the space-time continuum. As if we rode faster-than-light particles, we go from New York to Nazareth in the time of Jesus. Paintings, architecture, and other objects become gateways into the past and its people. In “Two Laundresses,” the women of Degas’ painting come to life in the Bronx, which then presses on them and “flattens” them. With this dance in and out of time, in and out of art, Doyle draws the reader like a thread through the exquisite tapestry of history.

Doyle seems sometimes to stand before an isolated artifact and say, “Open, Sesame,” creating a window into whole scenes, whole relationships. The poet’s eye falls on a corset found in Grandma’s trunk, and the black-and-white photographic image of the grandparents dissolves, replaced by an intimate, imagined moment in which the grandfather stands by the bed and undoes the corset laces, “his hands closer / and closer to her bare flesh, rising now to the surface like cream.”

Inevitably this emphasis on time raises questions about mortality. At Chartres, the poet feels compelled to kneel and describes his body as “nothing more than binding for a sheaf / of dowsing rods intent a thousand years later on once more scouring / the currents beneath the earth.” Doyle pointedly resists saying “divining rods,” even though, as he avers in another poem, “Around the Well,” “Poets wish / the sky were reflected in the water, / are not above lying about it.” Doyle seldom lies. There may be a magical suspension, as when the spinning globe in the ceiling of the ballroom preserves a dancing couple in time while the rest of the world grows old around them. Yet, in the very next poem, our bones “can’t wait to shed us / to live out in the open.” These poems depict a storm of shedding, as the body flakes off, cell by cell, peeling itself down toward whatever will be left of us. “Discards” speaks of “the ticking / inside us that sheds us compulsively.” The human imagination gloriously transcends time yet is caught in the transient moment as when, reading a biopsy report, the poet confronts his mortality: “2:16 P.M., / Tuesday, February 23rd, 2000.”

Finally, these poems lift and deepen. Again and again, they engage us by allowing us to tap the underground currents that unite us to each other and the world, past and present. In “Tipi,” the poet says, “I try to let the ground imagine itself / slowly into my body.” Every poem in this collection has that unforced feel, as if James Doyle had stilled himself for the slow entrance of a truth, a vision already waiting to be discerned by a mind properly attuned. We are the beneficiaries of that patience, that readiness. What more could anyone ask of poetry than this?

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Kathleen Kirk, Rhino, 2005

This book of poems, which won the 2003 Steel Toe Books Prize in Poetry, is almost like a book of stories, with various personas and exciting settings. Reading it, I can go into the jungle with tigers, mandrills, and parrots, or into the desert with camels and John the Baptist. I can go back to World War II in the mind of a boy who wasn’t drafted, or rewrite history with the discovery of Grandma’s corset in a trunk in the garage. I can enter Chartres cathedral or a Bronx deli. I can grow up in Nazareth or visit the Old West Curio Shoppe. I can understand the inner workings of a cancerous cell or of a forest fire. I can revisit various paintings, and I can watch Babe Ruth as well as Einstein consider a sand dune. This book is a series of exciting journeys and insightful, often hilarious, meditations.

In more than one poem, time is nonlinear, attesting to Doyle’s devotion to scientific as well as poetic insight. In “I Think I Met The One Last Night,” the speaker says, “It is 8:00 A.M. / I rewind everything in sight to keep her / from waking.” And then he does. They have children together in a future that must, in the movie metaphor, be the past and/or they part as friends. All possibility remains, either option avoided, while shee sleeps: “If I wake her, / our lives will be startled / into redundancy.” Likewise, in “Dizzying,” various futures seem to spin out of control around the speaker: “The pattern keeps coming toward me, disappears / at the corners, materializes in the center, expands.” Family life is miraculous, desirable, and horrific all at once:

When I married, it was for infinity. My fifth
wife spins around me till she is invisible.

A line of children with the same first name
come in the front door without knocking, climb out

through all the windows at once.

The poem “Vertigo suggests a medical explanation for all this dizziness, the collapse of the scaffolding of the inner ear. When the vertigo begins, the speaker sees “a world / between the cracks, metaphorical to the point // of nausea.”

Indeed, it is comforting to stop now and then in this book, to witness a woman on her balcony, watching the birds who have stolen each strand of her hair, where metaphor eases rather than provides the nausea: chemotherapy is the literal explanation for the hair loss, birds a much better one. And to go back to a particular moment in one person’s history, 1949, in “Boxing Nights” and witness a boy and his father in a familiar rite of passage, when they “beat / each other drunk and pulpy.” What amazement I felt at what happens next, when the event is so utterly accepted:

We came home at 6:00 A.M.,
laughing, smearing red
over the sofa and easy chair.

My mother fixed us eggs
in chicken gravy. My sisters
and brothers lined up to shake
my hand and kiss their dad.

You can read James Doyle poems in RHINO 2003, “Poem Wrapped in Grease Skin,” and in this issue, RHINO 2005, “A Giddy Fork in the Road,” which is essentially a list of gifts he wants, including “Groucho Marx eyebrows.” It should be noted that, considering a sand dune, Einstein twirled a Groucho Marx mustache. Doyle wants his indelible eyebrows, though, “for the last words / on my death bed.” I’m sure he will raise them once or twice, to dizzying effect.

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Gabriel Welsch, Small Press Review, January-February 2005

While it took me mere hours to read and savor James Doyle’s latest collection, it took me months to come up with what to say about it. It wasn’t due to any lack of admiration on my part – Doyle’s poems are clearly seasoned work. The poet writes about aquariums, cancer, bible stories, art, Russian immigrants, and more, all in the same collection, and all in credible, honest ways. My commentary was not held back by lack of familiarity with the poet. I sought his work in journals and online, and read much more than what is contained in his prizewinning book. In short, the usual impediments did not hold me back.

Instead, the unusual surprise of the collection itself gave me pause. For several years, poetry manuscripts – particularly first and second books published by the most visible independent and university presses – have conformed to the editorial call for thematic or conceptual cohesion. One rarely finds a collection by any but the most famous poets that does not hold fast to some organizing conceit. This is not to say such organization cannot be a positive thing – I think of Glück’s The Wild Iris, Hummer’s Walt Whitman in Hell, Deitrich’s Krypton Nights as three stirring examples. But call it the anthologist’s zeal, or the yen for surprise, whatever – it is a rare treat anymore to read a poet whose work covers a variety of styles, ideas, and themes, and does so in a single collection which, if it were a furnished room, could only be described as eclectic.

If I had to settle on one trait shared by the poems in Einstein Considers a Sand Dune, it would be Doyle’s precision with plain language, as when he describes lagoon water “which has grown so tired its bubbles / are greasy, like cholesterol.” Or a manta ray: “as if an ocean current had thrown on darkness / for a cape.” He is also deft with observation, as when he says a stray dog is “too intimate / with my skin’s debris to ignore,” or when, in reference to what we learn about cancer, he observes, “It has taken all the time in the world until now for us / to become literate.” Because he is so precise, and has earned the wisdom of his observations through years of thought, his poems have huge empathy for their subjects, whether Salome knowing Herod is “the magician / who will draw from her nothing but joy,” or the disillusioned nuns feeding the beads of their rosaries to seagulls before casting their wedding rings into the sea.

So not only is Doyle’s book good, it is very different from much of what you will read. If there is a connection, it is loose, and nothing more than the lucid engagement of an empathetic writer with his world. The joy, then, is to follow the glimmer of his attention, to whatever subject he chooses to illuminate. After reading Einstein Considers a Sand Dune, I will seek hereafter the work of James Doyle, and anticipate the next offering from Steel Toe Books.

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Joe Benevento, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, 2004

James Doyle’s Einstein Considers a Sand Dune hovers between an often stark uncovering of life’s unforgiving conclusions and a bemused recognition of how personal grace can keep us from being too easily defeated or ridiculous. In “The Fox,” for example, Doyle shares with us the cold truth about our very own skeleton, which we’d like to think forms an “elaborate / structure we think was made just / for us,” but, in truth “can’t wait to shed us / and live out in the open. It is far / closer to stone than it ever was / to us.” But in a James Doyle poem, if we have that insight, we are in some sense saved from what not having it might mean; we’re on to what life is like, so it can’t undo us the way the crafty fox defeats so many in myriad tales of the unwise.

The resulting calmness or even dignity is beyond the reach of the mandrill in “The Tiger and the Mandrill,” in which the mandrill, by cursing his fate as potential prey for the tiger, loses his equilibrium and minimizes his otherwise solid chances for escape. “The mandrill turns hysterical, starts to chatter,” unlike the tiger himself, who is not portrayed as an unconquerable predator, but instead, “never expects a decision to go his way.” The tiger knows most hunts are unsuccessful, a fact that might have been some solace to the hysterical mandrill if he had the ability to embrace it.

Of course, most of Doyle’s poems are not about animals; their subject matter is in fact quite varied, from commentaries on noted paintings to poems about fighting cancer, and from personages as famous as Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein and as obscure as the author’s Great Aunt Rachel. Still, the theme of insight as a way to avoid being overwhelmed keeps insisting itself upon the scene. In the title poem, Einstein is explicitly compared to an incomparable comedian, Groucho Marx, and the whole look at his approaching of e=mc2 has comic possibilities. We all know Einstein failed at lots of conventional endeavors before reaching his genius status in the mainstream culture; in Doyle’s work something dribbling down Einstein’s chin could be “old spaghetti or new worlds”; Einstein’s unflappable nature brings him the patience to cruise to recognition rather than ridicule.

Finally, Doyle has several poems that look back to his growing up – in the Bronx of the 40s and 50s, a tough place, certainly, as so many others have decided, but a place for Doyle, particularly in his poem, “In the Bronx,” where the wisest tough guy is one who can “turn his back” on the end of each night, “like turning / your back on yourself for a while, / so you wouldn’t feel used up by yourself.” Doyle’s characters persevere, including even the about-to-be-beheaded John the Baptist in “Salome,” because they are all right with the unfairness, the sometimes absurdity, of the world. They know how to, when necessary, turn their backs on its silly cruelties, its cancer cells, its predatory laws, even its spoiled fifteen-year-old girls, who think they are deciding our ends.

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Richard Collins, Xavier Review, Spring 2004

While the title poem is worth reading, one of my favorites is a companion poem, “Babe Ruth Considers a Sand Dune,” which begins: “It’s too high to be a pitcher’s mound, too grainy / for a scorecard, too small to be a contract. // ‘But, what the hell, I’ll autograph it / anyway,’ says the Babe, and puts out // his cigar in it.” Such shifts away from what you might expect to delights unexpected are what keep us reading James Doyle’s poems cover to cover. And there are enough such moments in this book of imaginary portraits and autobiographical dream meditations to keep us happy. “Diapers,” for example, is no doubt a real experience expressed in surreal terms, for in it we see a sort of eco-Lady of Shallot vowing to use cloth diapers instead of disposable and then going gaga from all the washing and folding, finally salting her dinner with cut-up diapers, throwing diaper snowballs, replacing all the lampshades with diapers, repaving her driveway with diapers, and finally getting an NEA grant “to cover the wilderness / with millions of small whit symmetrical squares.” In this poem and in Doyle’s vision of Louis XVI conducting “statehood with a handkerchief / and war with a baton,” we can see the wit that made David Kirby choose this book to win the 2003 Steel Toe Books Prize in Poetry.

Another favorite of mine here is Doyle’s portrait of his “Severe Aunts,” who are like Stonehenge in “doily cuffs.” They sleep in beds with “stained glass sheets” that were “never unmade.”

They died in a row,
one after the other.
The funeral flowers
from one were still
fresh enough for the next.

Their graves and monuments
are in a circle.
I want to be buried
in the middle. They’ll keep
out the wind, snow.

Their severity, which once intimidated him, in the end, comforts him. And these poems, with their hidden stained glass sheets, many of them rough-hewn, sever, un-pretty if not plain, might well do the same for us.

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The Comstock Review (Online Edition), May 2004

Einstein Considers a Sand Dune (Steel Toe, 2004) is the quirky title of James Doyle’s volume, which won the 2003 Steel Toe Prize in Poetry. Delightfully imaginative, the poems in this collection play with time and timelessness, juggling opposites while indulging in some apt ironic humor.

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Thomas “Pog” Johnson, Wavelength, Summer 2004

Einstein Considers a Sand Dune is written, thankfully, by a man whose cynicism is spent and whose wonder at the world around him is amazingly fresh and refreshing. James Doyle said at a recent reading that the first thing to remember when writing is that “art is lies.” If this is true, then Doyle’s poetry, which is certainly art, lies well enough to fool a hardened reader into again believing in life’s beauty.

For a man considering that he might have bought an antique tub, “turned it upside down / on my porch, sat on it / while dusk and I studied /each other” (“The Tub”) to lines that reflect on the mischievous youthful pleasures of smoking, “so no one would be stranded / in air without weight, air / that passed through you hollow / without leaving a trace” (“Boxing Nights”), Doyle’s poetry evokes images born of a life well spent and born into a reader for contemplation, reminiscence, and sheer joy. Doyle’s attitude at his reading was that of a confident man who lives life without apologies and who refuses to apologize for this world and its people he loves so much. This is the attitude that shines forth in his verse.

Doyle claims that his original idea for the collection was to write from the perspective of various cultural icons standing before sand dunes. Only two such poems made the final cut: “Babe Ruth Considers a Sand Dune” and the title piece. These re-invest their mythical subjects with those human qualities that fall away when a person is made a symbol: faulty pride, insecurities, pathos, and the playfulness with which Doyle himself obviously approaches life. That playfulness, the ability, even willingness, to bravely face life and take it in stride, is what allows for the magical sense of awe that Doyle puts into poems like “Woman Standing at Her Balcony.” Reportedly written in five minutes while watching his then-bald-from-chemotherapy wife tend to her outdoor plants, the poem tells us that “The woman / seems unaware that what she watches, / like one lover after another, has taken her hair, / lock by lock, for all the usual reasons ― / rings, plumage, nests, growth, glitter – until / all her hair is gone and the rest of the world, / clinging to its dictionaries and definitions of beauty, / blames it on chemotherapy, blindly advises a wig.” This kind of head-on treatment of such a shattering disease as cancer is an anomaly. Beautiful and honest, the words admit not the slightest hint of sentimentality. This openness is one of Doyle’s many gifts.

In “John the Baptist in the Desert,” Doyle writes about the New Testament prophet’s personal exodus in the wilderness. Doyle concludes that, after receiving the revelation of his cousin, “Now that he knows / he will live, John no longer cares if he dies.” After seeing this vibrant man in person, I am convinced that James Doyle is far from the grave; and after reading Einstein Considers a Sand Dune and hearing Doyle give voice to his poetry, I am equally convinced that his words will keep him alive for us long after he is gone.

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Matthew Smith, Verse (Online Edition), January 2005

It’s the kind of uncertainty that would drive Einstein to distraction. The first poem in James Doyle’s Einstein Considers a Sand Dune takes the perspective of an American boy growing up on a farm during World War II. The family living down the road from the POW camp takes a small-picture approach to the war, and, granted, Doyle pitches in an escaped prisoner who more or less embodies Schrödinger’s cat. But there’s a consistent topic, a voice, a sense of movement and meaning. “When the German Prisoners Passed” even closes poignantly: “The war ended in time so I wasn’t drafted. / My parents said they guessed we should be glad // Grandpa’s was the only death in the family / in the war years. Now they were free to get old.”

Here’s the hitch. Poem two, “Babe Ruth Considers a Sand Dune,” picks up the motif of baseball from the first poem and, by way of playful imagery, cleverness, and humor, becomes perhaps the best of all possible outcomes . . . if you asked a roomful of poets to write a poem about an athlete in the desert. Doyle does a crackerjack impersonation of the Babe: “’I never liked salt // or egg in my beer,’ he snorts, popping another can.” It’s just that something seems a little off when this poem carries the title’s formula, and all it amounts to is a pretty good bar joke. And so on.

The collection, which won last year’s Steel Toe Books Poetry Prize, contains some stunning, beautiful poems (“The People Who Have Vanished,” “Corset,” “Christina of Denmark,” “Tipi,” “The Diver,” and “Perhaps There’s a Headstone” for starters). “No Other Elegy,” a meditation on a favorite swimming hole gone sour, reminds one of Larkin with his knack for marrying the profound to the profane. (“Nice debris, I think. The rest / of the life-sized doll is probably // staring up at me from the bottom.”) The end of this poem brings up a concern that gathers mass and energy as the book goes on: that of a dangerously inert past, and future. Doyle reminds himself and us that, difficult as it might be, he’s going to have to stand up if he wants to move around:

I dove in just now
to make memory three-dimensional.

But total memory has no fluidity.
You are encased in it and preserved whole

like a peat bog corpse. I drag myself
out of the water while I still can.

A peculiar component of Einstein is the handful or so of ekphrastic poems. The best of these is “Christina’s World,” named for the famous painting by Andrew Wyeth of a blind girl reclining on a hill. By slyly projecting his own mythology onto the familiar scene, Doyle peels back our expectations and reveals something far more shocking and familiar: “Suddenly we know what she is looking / at. The field between her and the house / has filled up with the rest of her life . . . It has / become so crowded now neither Christina / nor we can ever again move on.”

So many of the poems, however, smack of novelty; too often Doyle seems to be pacing off his creative range. “Louis XVI” is slathered with opulent descriptions and nudge-nudge observations, and a potentially interesting piece about the worship of the transient is ultimately spoiled by linguistic display. An indulgence in post-imperial finger wagging certainly doesn’t help: “He powdered / his cheeks nine times a day / in the one mirror he knew / was shatter-proof – the vagrant eyes / over the countryside and cities / of France.” Aside from being a little awkward, this snipe is banal. (Noting that Louis XVI was inconsiderate of his subjects is a little like pointing out that Gandhi was a nice guy.) Even so, some of Doyle’s flights of fancy do soar. The unlikely “Diapers” follows the hilarious nosedive-into-madness of a conservation-minded mother who makes the choice to use cloth diapers. Tailing the development of new life and new waste, the poem brings the reader again into the struggle against stasis, against the filling-up of the world – this time with “millions of small white symmetrical squares.”

When Doyle is not digginto this recurring concern, however, his poems can baffle, with tropes and images that seem to have no more continuity than a pack of chain-smoked cigarettes. In “I Think I Met The One Last Night,” he makes the following transition: “She lined them up / behind the Zamboni // and we skated / on smooth ice like a real family. / When the curtain // dropped, we realized / we could still be friends.” “Discards,” an otherwise intriguing piece about shedding dead skin, stumbles over its own sagacity: “Anonymity is the one drug // whose only withdrawal symptom is time.” The ambitious double portrait “Salome” – depicting the young dancer visiting John the Baptist in prison – touches on both figures’ inner monologues but leaves us with a disappointingly shallow conclusion. We are led into the darkness of the saint’s cell with a richly attired beauty as our guide, and somehow all we leave with is a tolerance for differing perspectives. Even the title poem, toying with the proximity of brilliance to silliness (“his mustache like Groucho Marx.”, concludes its game at a noncommittal distance, with “things that could be old / spaghetti or new worlds / trickling down his chin.”

So why the schizophrenia? Two poems from late in the book may provide the answer. The first, “John the Baptist in the Desert” (combining earlier devices), concludes:

He no longer needs to give shape to the words
his cousin will wish upon the world.

His hands have the strength his voice had.
He clenches and unclenches them. Now that he knows

he will live, John no longer cares if he dies.
He is ready to leave the desert.

Maybe this has been Doyle’s plan all along – neither to cooperate nor to impede, but to step aside and let truth go about its own business. In “In the Bronx,” the genius reappears as hyperbole: “they rehashed his moves / in that day’s Yankees game from more angles / than Einstein ever figured on his blackboard.” Is it that simple? Is the angle-tally this book’s central concern? The poem’s last lines elaborate: “like turning / your back on yourself for a while, / so you wouldn’t feel used up by yourself.” Clunky as the phrasing is, it aptly describes all the moments in Einstein Considers a Sand Dune when Doyle opts to wink at the reader, at the poem, and at himself as poet.

We know the winking is a conscious choice, however, because, halfway through Einstein, Doyle faces the abyss hinted at in so many other poems. “The Cancerous Cell” is a robust treatment of disease as an allegorical figure: “It can’t put the book down. It reads / faster and faster. It will read / through the night until the story / is finished.” Doyle’s vigorous imagination stretches to full effect, fingering dozens of images which he sets in place with a precision and care magnified by urgency. Here he brings us to the intersection of mortality and eternity:

We can invent the intimacy of a biopsy
and pinpoint the precise moment
when the microscopic world of cells
opened like a gorge and we swayed
on its edge, growing dizzy, staring down
and down. In this case, 2:16 P.M.,
Tuesday, February 23rd, 1999.

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