Review of My Torn Dance Card by David James
The Fly Came Near It, 2015
by Robert Haight
David James has been a well-known figure in the Michigan writing community for a long time. In the nineteen seventies, he was something of a prodigy. In his early twenties, James was included in The Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry published by Wayne State University Press. Before he was thirty years old, James published his first full-length book of poetry, A Heart Out of This World, from Carnegie-Mellon University Press. Though a second collection did not appear for many years, James continued to write consistently, publishing in little magazines and producing chapbooks as well as writing plays, reviews and occasional articles. He was also included in Wayne State University Press’s second Third Coast anthology (1988) and New Poems from the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry (2000). He has been teaching writing at Oakland Community College in Michigan while continuing to practice his art.
Each new book that James composed reveals a poet more versatile in tone and theme, more comfortable in his expression of feeling, more experienced in his range of subject matter. His new collection, My Torn Dance Card, reveals a poet who has achieved a continuing maturity in his sensibilities and a command of his craft.
The collection comprises two parts of over thirty poems apiece. It’s a full-length book, to say the least, spanning ninety-four pages. The first half of the collection, titled “Listen,” includes a variety of subjects and patterns: some poems in traditional stanzas, some in more free lines, and some unlined. The poems in this section, though not tightly connected, are generally more playful, innocent, and grow more worldly as the progression continues. The second half of the book—“Dance”—is more seasoned. The poems look squarely into the mirror, acknowledging impermanence while celebrating the enduring blessings of life and love.
James is familiar to many poetry readers for his humor in a genre that often seems to ignore it. My Torn Dance Card, like its predecessors, contains a number of poems that are playful, light, and amusing. In “What I Learned About My Handwriting Analysis” James writes,
Right off the bat
the large issues come to light—
my ease with the unknown,
a preference for folly,
a definitive reliance upon
religion and philosophy.
The missing ‘n’ in Everything
points clearly to a lack
of breastfeeding as an infant.
The ‘y’ and ‘g’ dip below the line
but never come back to right themselves.
Another rhetorical approach to the poem that James has used in the past and employs again in this collection is a movement from seemingly ordinary circumstances to a sudden confrontation with the bizarre. In “Rapt Devotion” (with its clever pun), a wife covers her husband with wrapping paper while he sleeps. In “Falling in Love” James describes an unkempt woman entering a hospital emergency room. By the end of the poem he asks,
How lonely does a woman have to be
to love a hot dog?
At what stage of life
does meat look physically appealing,
start whispering your name,
and promise to be all yours?
The mark of James’s growth is apparent in the poems that risk tenderness and name the losses people eventually must experience with age. The subject matter of the poems in this collection becomes increasingly elegiac, and a poem such as “What Comes to Mind at the End” shows just how far David James has traveled from cleverness toward wisdom:
February, a cold morning, Friday,
and we bury another friend.
We’re at that age, you know,
when people begin to say goodbye
to this earth, and find their way
back to mere dust. There’s a long
path that weaves through the snow,
descending below a gray sky.
We all walk it in the end.
Our lives light up like a song
and then flash into nothing.
Silence becomes a stifled cry
and time lifts its bandage to mend
the wound. But when it’s our turn to go,
there won’t be angels on wings
or chariots blazing from above:
we’ll simply lean over or fall or bend
down and die. The north wind will blow,
relatives and friends will come, then drive
home, worrying about the end of love.
Numerous other poems confide in the reader with questions about mortality, worries about reaching middle age with the pains and perils it brings, anxiety about a future where nothing is guaranteed and nothing is certain but losses and eventually death. Still, though troubled by these grim realities, James never gives in to despair, knowing that “each day you wake to play a part.”
In a time when so many books of poetry are tightly constructed sequences focused on narrow themes or collections more interested in language as an end to itself, My Torn Dance Card offers the clear, articulate words of a poet who brings readers a breadth of human experience they can welcome. These poems embody the laughter and tears, the joy and sorrow, the love and loss that leave their notches in the lives of those brave enough to think and feel but not necessarily understand. After all, as James reminds us,
Sometimes you’re left to raise
your fists to the dark sky
for more time, more grace,
for more love than is humanly possible.