This Vanishing – Book Review

Caserio’s poetry book draws on ancient works


“This Vanishing,” the first print poetry collection by Dave Caserio, has recently been released by CW books, an imprint of Word Tech. This company also published Montana poet laureate Tami Haaland’s latest book. Watch for future offerings of the work of Billings-area poets from this press.

Billings residents with a taste for poetry already know Dave Caserio as one of the most recognizable talents in south-central Montana. His multi-art performances featuring on-the-spot painting, interpretive dance and outstanding musicians such as bassist Parker Brown and guitarist Alex Nauman have been featured at the Billings Fringe Festival, Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.’s Garage Pub, Sacrifice Cliff Theatre, NOVA Center for the Performing Arts, and the Babcock Theater.

Dave has also worked with cancer patients at Billings Clinic, focusing on the restorative power of words. He teaches poetry with the Big Sky Writing Workshops, has offered Humanities Montana presentations throughout the state, and will be a featured speaker farther afield this year at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey.

Drawing on the experience gathered from his years in the Seattle slam poetry scene, Dave has also served as a guiding spirit and mentor for young artists and writers for whom downtown Billings is home base. Two such writers, Pete Tolton and James Dean Hickman, whose ventures include not only Montana Slam but Noise & Color, contributed their own considerable talents to “This Vanishing’s” design and layout.

As anyone who has seen him perform can attest, poetic music and rhythm are extremely important in Caserio’s work. One can hear rhythmic echoes ranging from “Beowulf” to “Leaves of Grass” in these poems. It is also evident that Caserio has mastered the subtle modulation of late 20th century free verse. “Ghost Eye,” for example, is rich with alliteration and assonance:

Even the neighbors
Back in Warrington
Waited with their tea leaves.

I asked Caserio how studying poetry with Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell at New York University had influenced his work. He notes that these meticulous craftspeople brought to his attention different aspects of the poet’s art.
From Kinnell, he learned the “weight and texture of vowels and consonants.” Since Dave had been working as a mime, this revitalization of language “was heady stuff to me then and it remains so, even now.”

Olds, in addition to her own sense of sound, focused on concrete detail and the power of ordinary life, the animated discourse of families, and, on a larger scale, the arguments of politics and social criticism. She also introduced him to the healing capacity of poetry, which he cultivates today in his work with cancer patients.
The accents and rhythms of jazz are present in many poems, along with an appropriate measure of urban dissonance. But Caserio is also capable of achieving a quieter pastoral music in poems such as “Vermont Etiology,” which begins with a passage recalling the work of James Wright and, especially, Robert Bly:

Since first dark
Only the snow has come
And what would be sound
Is taken back into the body
Like an oar lifted from water

In a poem by Bly or Wright, such atmospheric lines generally lead to surrealistic “deep imagery.” Caserio offers such a moment of heightened consciousness, but, true to the gritty aesthetic of the Chicago-born poet, weaves the illumination into a tough urban context:

Around blunted corners and back-alley ways,
Through quiet gates of snow,
Through half-covered broken glass
And the rusted time of automobiles

The poem may offer something like the kind of meditative subjective perception typical of Bly or Wright, but it will not leave anyone, not even “the slow, the lame, the deemed impure,” behind. The descriptive catalog of undesirables and encompassing generosity of spirit recall one of Caserio’s Humanities Montana presentation subjects, Walt Whitman.

Readers familiar with Caserio’s performance pieces will recognize some of these poems.

Seeing these familiar works in print complements the experience of the live performances. After reading “William Cumbry Moss,” for example, I have a more complete understanding of one of Caserio’s best-known characters, a homeless schizophrenic. Details of Moss’s background, his apparent involvement in the sex trade, for example, can be more clearly seen in the written poem, and his descent into his current state, though presented in broad strokes, is rendered clear.

The poem in print offers a counterpoint to Caserio’s live interpretation of the character. It’s almost like reading a brief, impressionistic autobiography — the poem is in first person from the character’s point of view — as opposed to unexpectedly encountering Moss in the subway tunnels and alleys he haunts.

The complexities of his character, his intelligent but catch-as-catch-can scientific bent (“I was / Reading about brains”), and his devotion to “St Dorotheus” are perhaps more accessible in the printed form. If you live in Billings and know this character from Dave’s performances, prepare to meet him in a new, more coherent if perhaps less immediate way.

As a reader, I’m not always comfortable with Caserio’s over-the-top approach to poetry. But the theatrical impulse is no stranger to the art, and, in American poetry in particular, represents a distinguished tradition. Dave’s poetic voice blends an American sense of expansive ego with a poetic vulnerability that somehow both intensifies and ameliorates the potential for self-indulgence. One thinks of Walt Whitman balancing the tender sensibility of “Live Oak with Moss” and his acceptance of all human frailties in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” against the breathtaking audacity of “Song of Myself.”

Perhaps this is what Caserio means when he cites “Whitman’s consciousness to hold the vertical interior in undistracted balance with the immense variety of the horizontal exterior.” A related blend of self-deprecating humor and self-expansion can be seen in the post-World War II work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, even Sylvia Plath. I hear an echo of Kerouac, for example, in Moss’s reaction to being labeled a “schizophrenic catatonic amnesiac / And a drunk. Hell, I knew that” as well as in the more obvious Kerouac-esque jazz evocation in “My Father Used to Stay Up Nights.”

But, as shown by the epigraphs introducing each of the book’s six sections, the volume’s influences are not exclusively American. Much of Caserio’s sense of sound comes from the Old World: Anglo-Saxon ballads, Beowulf (another of his Humanities Montana subjects), Chaucer, Irish poetry.

Caserio’s idiosyncratic American is not some neo-Adam created afresh. As with Kerouac and William Carlos Williams, Caserio’s ear is attuned to the wealth of urban and immigrant speech rhythms, a focus that dates back to his work with Kinnell.

During his years at NYU, says Caserio, “I began to carry cloth- bound artist blank sketchbooks (I dislike lines on a page) with me everywhere I went, on subways, on buses, on trains, or while walking the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, to record the varied voices, stories and rhythms of speech that continuously filled the air in snatches and phrases and sometimes whole soliloquies.”

Caserio matches these voices to the aspirations of his motley characters and personae, as well, perhaps, as to aspects of his own family history and personal experience.

When asked how, after stints in Chicago, New York, and Seattle, he came to live in Billings, Dave recalls his childhood reading and his grandfather’s glowing memories of a sojourn in Butte.

“Lewis and Clark and their journey through Montana wound up my imagination,” he says. “I remember pestering my father that he should quit his nice-paying blue-collar job and move the lot of us out to Montana. I bugged him about it on a consistent basis and I used my grandfather’s claims to try to bolster my argument.”

Dave’s story, and the story of American westering in general, resonates with a desire that may be as old as humanity itself, the urge to transcend the limitations placed on our individual lives while somehow retaining our familiar identity in the process, to start anew while not forgetting where we’ve been.

This theme is intimated in the collection’s title and explored in the first poem. The only poem in Section One, “Forensic Love” telescopes from “2098” backward into prehistory, to “Lucy from Olduvai Gorge” (The Lucy fossil was actually found not at Olduvai but at Hadar in Ethiopia, but who can resist the sound play of place and personal names?). The poem returns to the future with the Whitman-flavored observation that “those who discover me / Will come to know what fragrance lies unbloomed.”

But Caserio’s vision is generally darker and more ironic than Whitman’s, with roots sunk deep in the 20th century’s peculiar aura of omnipresent nightmare. In the formative decades of a new century, Dave’s poems recall the chaos of the last one.

These poems inhabit a dangerous world. Like it or not, they tell us, the future may lead inevitably to Gallipoli, to a William Cumbry Moss demi-world, or simply to the “nameless coffin” of “Forensic Love.” Better get used to such uncertainty and learn to live with it, Dave Caserio tells us in “This Vanishing.” Better yet, learn to celebrate it.

Bernard Quetchenbach teaches English at MSU Billings.