A CLOSER LOOK: Philip Dacey

"Lovers of poetry, of fine turns of language, of amazing knots tied and untied, will appreciate Dacey's poems. Their strength is in the voice, the casual, comfortable speaker, whether Whitman, Hopkins, Gauguin, or the men and women of middle America.  The authenticity, the humor, the intelligence—in verse, free or chained—you can't ask for more." 

              —Louis McKee

Philip Dacey, the protean poet of our time, ranges freely across time, humor­, culture, form, and anything else he damn well pleases, and does so with startling productivity and imagination in a voice that is by turns wry, tender, incisive, and intelligent.  He is the author of eleven full-length books of poems, including The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins (Turning Point Books, 2004), Vertebrae Rosaries: 50 Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press, 2009), The New York Postcard Sonnets: A Midwesterner Moves to Manhattan (Rain Mountain Press, 2007), and most recently Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems (Rain Mountain Press, 2010). Two books of his poems appeared in 1999, The Deathbed Playboy (East. Wash. U. Press) and The Paramour of the Moving Air (Quarterly Rev. of Lit.). Previous books of poetry include The Boy Under the Bed (Johns Hopkins, 1981), How I Escaped From the Labyrinth and Other Poems (Carnegie-Mellon, 1977), and Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory (Iowa, 1991).  He has also published books of poems about the painter Thomas Eakins (2004) and the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1982).


His awards include three Pushcart Prizes, a Discovery Award from the New York YM-YWHA's Poetry Center, many fellowships (Fulbright to Yugoslavia, Woodrow Wilson to Stanford, National Endowment for the Arts, Minnesota State Arts Board, Bush Foundation, Loft-McKnight), and prizes for individual poems from The Ledge, Yankee, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Kansas Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Cumberland Poetry Review, Nebraska Review, Poet & Critic, Flyway, and Free Lunch.  He is co-editor, with David Jauss, of Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms (Harper & Row, 1986), he has presented his poetry—which appears in over one hundred anthologies—in more than half of the fifty states and served as Distinguished Poet in Residence, Wichita State U. (1985); Distinguished Visiting Writer, U. of Idaho (1999); and Eddice B. Barber Visiting Writer, Minnesota State U. at Mankato (2003). A native of St. Louis, Missouri, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Sixties, and the father of three grown children, he moved to Manhattan's Upper West Side in 2004 for a post-retirement adventure after teaching for thirty-five years at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota, and is returning this year to live in Minneapolis next to Lake Calhoun with his partner, Alixa Doom.

Dacey's writing has inspired numerous musical, theatrical, and multimedia works. "Rondel" was chosen by Seattle artist Linda Beaumont to be part of her marble donor recognition pillar in Baley-Boushay House, AIDS Housing of Washington's model hospice (opened 1991). Poems set to music include "The Birthday," arranged by David Sampson for soprano, harp, oboe, and cello and performed at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute, Spring, 1982; "The Musician," arranged by Elizabeth Alexander for the American Master Chorale and performed at First Congregational Church, Madison, Wisconsin, November, 1994, with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and subsequently elsewhere, including Toronto; "Ear Abounding," arranged by Robert Whitcomb, performed by Southwest Minnesota Orchestra and Chorus, May 3, 2003, Marshall. "Gerard Manley Hopkins Meets Walt Whitman in Heaven" is the subject of a wood engraving by Letterio Calapai. In 1991 Dacey formed with his sons Strong Measures, a successful performance trio that united his poetry and their music. In 1996 he played Walt Whitman in a performance of his verse-play, "Nurses and War," with Beth Weatherby as Florence Nightingale.


Commentary and selections from reviews


William Trowbridge, The Georgia Review:


I'd rather read an uneven book of Philip Dacey's than an even one by many of his more award-laden contemporaries.  Dacey's satiric brilliance shines throughout The Deathbed Playboy


The Hudson Review:


Dacey's poems are as individual as fingerprints. 

Tar River Review:

To find such accessible complexity is rare . . . .  


Barton Sutter:


Phil Dacey is master of multiple forms; he speaks through many characters, male and female; he is wildly imaginative; he is ungodly prolific. These are characteristics we associate with the finest poets of the past, and he is one of ours.

Oxford Companion to United States History (2001):


Many outstanding poets whose work does not fall conveniently into a specific "school" or category flourished in the second half of the twentieth century. Simply to cite some representative figures—Adrienne Rich, Stanley Kunitz, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, James Dickey, Robert Hayden, Mark Strand, A.R. Ammons, Audre Lord, Charles Simic, Philip Dacey, Billy Collins, Carolyn Forché, Sharon Olds—is to suggest the vitality of American poetry in these years. 

Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review:


Hundreds of poets have evoked, addressed, described, argued with, imitated, and parodied Walt Whitman for well over a century. Few poets, however, have more frequently, more successfully, and more imaginatively engaged him than has Dacey. 

San Francisco Review of Books:


Dacey's work never fails to amaze.

More by and about Philip Dacey

Homepage: http://philipdacey.com

Interview by Karla Hudson for Verse Wisconsin (March 2011) http://www.versewisconsin.org/Issue105/prose105/dacey.html

Pop Cop (view in connection with Dacey's poem "Difficult Corners" below)



Review of The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins



Philip Dacey on Whitman: An Interview and Four New Poems



A Prefatory Note from Philip Dacey

Remembering the warning of Randall Jarrell, when asked to talk about his work—"Don't ask a pig about bacon"—as well as Federico Fellini's similar warning—"As soon as you talk about your own work, you kill it or caricature it"—I will keep this note short and limited.

I do want to say, however, in addition to thank you to Greg McBride for his promotion of my work, that since after eleven books I still have not produced a selected poems (Mosquito Operas, a kind of "selected poems," includes only short poems and draws from a small minority of my work), this sizable selection for Innisfree acts as a prototype for a possible future selected. Poems here have been drawn from most of the books, including the first and the last, as well as several in between.

Formally the poems are all over the map, including many free verse poems but also poems utilizing various traditional forms: the sonnet, In Memoriam stanza, blank verse, alternating quatrain, and heroic couplets. I advise beginning poets to use all the tools in the toolbox—i.e., don't be afraid of traditional forms—but also not to forget that a good free verse poem beats a bad sonnet any day.

The content ranges, too: many about family members—siblings, parents, children—but also Eros, gender issues, Walt Whitman, and language and communication more generally, including the infamous form rejection letter. I confess to liking a wide range in both content and form and believe the variety I consider available to me acts as a creative stimulus.

The poem about Whitman is one of dozens of poems I've published about the poet, and I've recently collected most of them into a manuscript I am offering to publishers. The book, if it becomes a reality, will constitute the completion of my Victorian trilogy, the first two parts being my volumes of poems about Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Eakins, although neither of the latter is represented here as each book is organized as a sequence, with individual poems best viewed in the context of the others.


But excluding those two volumes still leaves plenty to choose from, as well as poems presented here that have appeared in print but not yet in a collection.

Selections from Philip Dacey's previously published work

Bedtime: An Elegy


The children long grown and gone,

the putting of them to bed

still goes on somewhere inside the old man,

who converted the dark outside the window

beside the chair beside the bunkbeds

into words he made into stories

to settle children into sleep,

at that late hour nothing standing upright

except the stories connecting earth and sky,


though now in his own darkness in

a single bed he tells to himself the story

of his telling stories to his children

in the long-ago dark, nothing again upright

at this even later hour except the stories

connecting earth and sky,


and though the darkness he makes

into words now comes from inside him,

the darkness of the absence of children,

who have become their own stories,

which he cannot make up and which

his children tell to him in their own way

as he pulls the story he tells himself

up over his head as if it were

a dream or he a child with a flashlight

reading long past the time he should.

Difficult Corners


1.  Introduction to "North Broadway & Grand"


You may have seen my brother on TV,

the traffic cop who dances as he works.

Candid Camera had him doing it

to music, a Baryshnikov in blue

stylishly choreographed by Twyla Tharp.

Years before, that corner had been the worst

for  gridlock:  nearby factories  and  trains

and highway entrances and exits tied

travellers (and city planners) in knots.

A million-dollar set of lights installed

in place of one patrolman under siege

fizzled, followed again by manpower,

this  time  three policemen  strategically

placed, the corner's own Bermuda Triangle.

Not many problems disappeared in there,

but soon the technocrats threw up their hands

and let the three, my brother one of them,

sink or swim in that sea of honking cars.


This went on until one now fateful day

both of my brother's partners called in sick.

The station chief, fed up, said, "Put Dacey

out there by himself and see what he can do,"

expecting nothing.  Which was what he got—

no jam, no backup, no cursing drivers,

only autos moving slick as skaters

on new ice, sweet perpetual motion,

the way it was just after World War II,

thanks to my brother's bumps and grinds, his arms

now windmill blades, now darting rapiers.

He never stopped, so why should the traffic?


It was as if he'd waited all his life

for just  this moment, backstage, as it were,

the old star finally ill and the new star born.

You've got to understand his years till then

had had their troubles, like, too many wives—

I always forget that fourth one's name—but now

he'd come into his own, local celeb,

and soon not so local.  A California

film crew documented him in Pop Cop

and folks from near and far regularly

came to watch,  thus creating more  traffic, which

he handled with his usual purposeful

show, and sometimes with a "Move it, Buddy!"

(Sometimes he made them go a way they did

not want to go.  But they did flow, did flow.)

Businesses threw banquets for him, and more

than one passing driver's left hand shot out

to pat him on the back: "Good job there, Dace!"

And though art meant for him Glenn Miller

period, I swear to see him work you'd think

there had to be a Muse of traffic cops.

As brave bullfighters work close to the horns,

my brother worked close to the cars, too close,

and twice was launched into the hospital.

Flowers from stranded drivers filled his room

and, when he returned, their horns blared welcome

in a steady stream his entire rush hour shift.

The rock was back, mid-channel, the river

swirling happily and noisily around him.

When he retired, they redesigned the streets.

I like to think that since he didn't have

some numbered jersey to hang up, enshrined,

for him they hung up several city blocks.


So when my sister knew she had three months

or less to live and chose to die at home,

my brother, toughest of tough cops, came daily

to his kid sis's place to act as Number One

Nurse, cleaning and feeding her, listening,

and at the very end was holding her,

he  the master of difficult passages,

never off-duty, by his sure ways even

leading me to metaphor, and a poem

in which I steered between gratitude

to him and—turning, turning—grief for her.


2.  North Broadway & Grand


for Owen, the Dancing Policeman of St. Louis


O, when she died

he was  the  traffic cop

again, the ballet dancer

so  gracefully


threading a city

through his hands,

only this time he was there

at the crossroads


to lead her home,

his  sister, through

the deepening dark,

no light but that


of his presence,

his only uniform

the look he gave her

as every move he made


the whole rushing hour long

signalled he was

close enough to her

to die himself.


"The most difficult corner

in the city.  The most

expensive equipment

couldn't manage it."


Put Dacey in.  And the human

touch eased

the knot, jam, block,

and everyone got home


safe, everyone.



Watching A Movie In A Foreign Language Without Subtitles


(Cordoba, Spain)


This is the way it has always been:

Someone speaks, and you know

You will never understand.

A man shoots another man

And talks as he does.

You try to translate.  Could he have said,

"We are all dying loaves of bread"?

Or a woman opens her blouse,

Revealing a scar on her breast.

To the man who stares, you hear her say,

"Yes, yes, there are rivers in the moon.  Jelly."

For years now, you have starred

In your own foreign movie.

Once, at breakfast,

When the sun through the terrace window

Was a director's dream,

Your wife, said, "You know, I love you."

It was the strangest language you had ever heard;

You passed her the salt.

Or your children run to the door to greet you,

Chanting, "Daddy's home!  Daddy's home!"

Your eyes fill with tears,

Surely out of frustration:

When will they learn to speak

The tongue of men?

So you eat popcorn, heavily buttered,

And watch the inexplicable goings-on:

A car hurtles off a cliff;

The sun rises.

Leaving the theatre, someone bumps into you.

He says, "Savages have eaten the moon."

You say, "You're welcome,"

And smile.  It is always good

To meet someone from home.


The Feet Man


for Leo Dangel


The worst job I ever had was nailing

Jesus' feet to the cross on the

assembly line at the crucifix factory.

Jesus! I'd never thought of myself

as religious before that, but when

I had to strike those nails—I figured

it up once—more than two thousand times

a day, my mind began seeing things:

little tremors along the skin, jerks of

those legs that were bonier than

models' legs, his eyes imploring,

forgiving. I swear, if a tiny drop of blood

had oozed out of that wood at my pounding,

I wouldn't have been surprised at all.

I was ripe for a miracle, or a vacation.

But all I got was worse: with each blow

of the hammer, I flinched, as if I

were the one getting pierced. Doing

that job day after day was bad enough,

but doing it to myself—my arms

spread out from one end of my paycheck

to the other—was crazy. I began

to sweat constantly, though the place

was air-conditioned. It wasn't long before

the foreman took me aside and told me

I was taking my job too seriously, that

if I wanted to keep it I had better calm down.

He was right. I pulled myself together

like a man and put all pointless thoughts

out of my head. Or tried to. It wasn't easy:

imagine Jesus after Jesus coming down

at you along that line, and you with

your hammer poised, you knowing

what you have to do to make a living.



Form Rejection Letter


We are sorry we cannot use the enclosed.

We are returning it to you.

We do not mean to imply anything by this.

We would prefer not to be pinned down about this matter.

But we are not keeping—cannot, will not keep—

what you sent us.

We did receive it, though, and our returning it to you

is a sign of that.

It was not that we minded your sending it to us


That is happening all the time, they

come when we least expect them,

when we forget we have needed or might yet need them, and we send them back.

We send this back.

It is not that we minded.

At another time, there is no telling . . . .

But this time, it does not suit our present needs.


We wish to make it clear it was not easy receiving it.

It came so encumbered.

And we are busy here.

We did not feel

we could take it on.

We know it would not have ended there.

It would have led to this, and that.

We know about these things.

It is why we are here.

We wait for it. We recognize it when it comes.

Regretfully, this form letter does not allow us to elaborate

why we send it back.

It is not that we minded.


We hope this does not discourage you. But we would not

want to encourage you falsely.

It requires delicate handling, at this end.

If we had offered it to you,

perhaps you would understand.

But, of course, we did not.

You cannot know what your offering it

meant to us,

And we cannot tell you:

There is a form we must adhere to.

It is better for everyone that we use this form.


As to what you do in future,

we hope we have given you signs,

that you have read them,

that you have not mis-read them.

We wish we could be more helpful.

But we are busy.

We are busy returning so much.

We cannot keep it.

It all comes so encumbered.

And there is no one here to help.

Our enterprise is a small one.

We are thinking of expanding.

We hope you will send something.



Four Men in a Car


"The ugliest thing in the world is the sight of four men in a car."

                                                      —David Bailey, photographer


We sit in the womanless car,

maleness twice-squared, going nowhere.


Two in front and two in back,

in the Jill-less car, Jack, Jack, Jack, and Jack.


We know how ugly we are,

but what can we do? We live here.


The truth is none of us can drive,

though our horsepower is impressive.


It may be a meeting's our goal,

or a game, or something illegal,


but it's all the same. The deadest end.

So we tell jokes. You know the kind.


Outside the car the women walk

and run and leap or make such talk


as prompts their hands to fly about

in ways ours, cramped inside, cannot.


Close, but not too, we don't move much;

it's accidental when we touch.


Oh, there's nothing as ugly as we,

four men in a car, not five or three.


To breathe, we roll our windows down,

and then we roll them up again.





Driving at night, I reached across for the knee

your skirt failed to cover and soon had your

long left leg and thigh bared in the dark car,

my hand like that of one blind who could see

by touching, fondling. You leaned back with a sigh.

South Dakota. The Great Plains. Summer stars.

A white glow, your leg lit up the interior

and by its slim self tamed the wandering sky:

I swear all that vast space surrounding us

pressed in close, closer, to the curving glass,

the prodigal void finally come home.

My left hand steered straight, my right strayed, overcome

by a silkiness some fire must have learned.

The hand that writes this, held there, burned and burned.



Llama Days


Because today I walked a llama back home,

I have a new standard for all my coming days.

Just minutes with the llama made this one a poem

of kindly wonders, long-necked woolly praise.


I'd been raking leaves, bent forward, head down,

eyes on my country acre, so that when

I raised them and saw at my driveway's end

a llama standing tall there, checking me out,


I was all stammer and gawk and disbelief

until I thought of Leon, my neighbor half-

a-mile away, whose land was mostly zoo,

menagerie, whatever, I called him Doo-


little, the animal doctor himself,

though Leon was no vet, just one big heart

for anything that walked on paw, web, or hoof—

goat, peacock, sheep, horse, donkey, mink, hare, hart.


But llama? I'd never noticed one before,

though no doubt my surprise at seeing him

was matched by his at seeing me—or more

than matched, he being lost, freedom become


a burden twice as bad as any bars,

so much so panic struck and he turned back,

high-stepping it onto the road, two-lane, tarred,

and I saw the headline, "Llama killed by truck."


Dropping the rake, I raced to rescue him,

who now stood frozen, straddling the centerline,

looking this way and that—oh, too much room,

too little clue. I had to herd him to Leon.


With slow approach and arms a traffic cop's,

I eased him into action in the lane

leading to llama-chow and fell into step

beside him—well, sort of, his two to my one.

I talked him down the road, an unbroken string

of chatter my invisible halter and rein:

"Howyadoin? Where'd you think you were going?

A little farther now, big guy. You'll be just fine."


Luckily, no car came to make him bolt,

though I almost wished for one, wanting someone

to see us, like old friends out for a stroll,

shoulder to shoulder in the morning sun.


Once we got close enough to what he knew,

he was gone, down the right driveway this time,

and I was left alone to wave goodbye: "You

take care now." His thanks silent. "You're welcome."


I don't expect the llama to escape again.

Leon's repaired a fence, no doubt, or gate.

So I know tomorrow I'll have to find my own,

invent one, a facsimile, and I can't wait.


Already I see him coming like a dream,

disguised as odd events, encounters, small dramas

worth at least a laugh. Let "He walked his llama home"

be my epitaph. I wish you lots of llamas.



Walt Whitman's Answering Service


Who calls here,

hankering, gross, mystical, nude?


Did you expect to find me at home?

Then you do not know me.

I am never at home.

I am always on the road.

All roads lead to the telephone;

wherever you go, on or off

the road, a telephone wire

sings beside you.


I knew you would call.

Everyone does,

in his or her own way.

All the wrong numbers you dial

are meant for me,

are the attempts of your better self

to make the call

you are afraid to make.


If you would have me know who you are,

leave no name or number,

simply give to this line

the mist of your breath

and I will recognize you.


I will call you back

unless you wait by the phone

for me to call you back.

Be confident, but be warned:

my voice could be disguised

as anything, anything.


If you love me,

if you truly wish to get through to me,

you will hang up

at the sound of the tone

and dial your own number.

If the line is busy

or no one answers,

consider yourself lucky,

you can always call again.

If the line is out of order,

remember, you are the only repairman.

If the line has been disconnected,

remember, the only phone company

is yourself.



Eskimo Joe


How can I not remember I

rubbed noses with my father in

his lonely bed when I was ten?

Forty years ago.  He's ninety


as he's telling me this as if

it happened yesterday.  "Before

we'd fall asleep.  You stayed over

Fridays.  It always made you laugh."


I don't forget the little room

he lived in for a year or so

after the divorce.  Just two

of us were a crowd.  Leave your dream


outside.  Was there even a chair?

And the rented bed was so small

he'd press himself against the wall

to give me a place to sleep.  To hear


of such touching touches me—here

at the heartbreak tip of my nose.

"You know," he says, "like Eskimos."

I see an ice floe and many long years


as someone tries to live on it.

When Joe married Rose, whose perfume

meant spring had opened up his room,

he rubbed his nose deep in her wet


promise, though in this late, dry autumn

he would stir my memory.  What

I think of is a book about

beavers I read once and the time


that sociable tribe spent a whole

far northern winter in their tight

domed quarters the wind rushed to bite

through, passing the days in gentle


grooming, low sounds, bodily touch.

The author was fortunate to observe

a particular "expressive

behavior pattern": at approach,


one creature nuzzled the other's face.

The air was cold.  "Do you remember?"

Now I smell the frozen river.

"Oh, yes," I tell him. "I do.  Yes."



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Contributors' Notes

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A CLOSER LOOK: Philip Dacey

Javy Awan

Ann Gilligan Bond

Shirley J. Brewer

Rick Bursky

Abigail Carroll

Bill Christophersen

Maryann Corbett

Dana Crum

Maureen Donatelli

Karen Greenbaum-Maya on Judy Kronenfeld

Kirsten Hampton

Maryanne Hannan on Kim Roberts

Kathleen Hellen

Paul Hopper

Gray Jacobik on Anne Harding Woodworth

Michael Jones

Remembering Ann Knox

Jean L. Kreiling

Dane Kuttler

Merrill Leffler

Gregory Luce

Greg McBride on Rick Bursky

Bob Meszaros

John Milbury-Steen

Rosanna Oh

Richard Peabody

Roger Pfingston

Heddy Reid

Oliver Rice

Elisavietta Ritchie

W.M. Rivera

Karen Sagstetter

David Sloan

Michael Spring

Naomi Thiers

Michele Wolf

Anne Harding Woodworth

P. Ivan Young

Edwin Zimmerman















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