Dead Ahead

by Ben Doller
Fence Books 2010
Reviewed by Matt Soucy

7.5 of 10 stars

“Each thing charged / with ought bends –”

Ben Doller’s new book, Dead Ahead, is, dare I say,…fun.  The dedication is “hey Sandra,” and the opening quotation is from a piece of colloquial writing by a seventeenth-century sea captain who explored the Pacific.  The opening poem, “What Do You Do,” is a greeting between narrator and narrator.  The writing is immediately fanciful and fast-paced:

What do you do.

Well. I tie population
knots in a length
of baling twine
laughing at mister
water & my, well –

                 (our elation
                 ship swell) –

Once you are started it is easy to be carried along from sound to sound and poem to poem.  There is a vivid coherence of image and thought without the feeling of being brought into some writer’s overly-intense personal world.  Doller uses a fair balance of sea-faring images, abstraction and personal interjection.  His social commentary is quick and broad enough to apply to more than just current social woes.

What makes Dead Ahead strongest, though, is that concepts and sounds are well run-aground together.  Piled internal rhymes and staccato beats keep the reader bouncing over the page:

A weight
A stick of space. A beam. Of zilch.
A swivelhead. Reverse trend
in cellular conglomeration. A cult.
An inner target. An origin disorder.
Send the word
send the word.
Telegram. Missile command.

(from “Pointing Habit”)

For all of feeling and sounding good (and good-sounding tongue-twisters that seem to move off of the page, e.g., “hotwater heater heating water hotter”), Doller also includes lines of a more personal nature that do not break up the central coherence of Dead Ahead:

were I were

steadfast as art

(from “On Vacation”)

but I have no city
an outline plus stains

a map of trade
routes winds & a market

community a target
humanity niche

I get so twitchy
when they call themselves me

(from “No City”)

Even when making serious points, as on the individual and community, Doller does not take himself too seriously.  Even though much of the imagery used is reminiscent of pirates and exploration (ships, waves, squabs, holds, galleons, sails, citrus, etc.) his treatment of the images is light but not sarcastic.  The strength of the book is in Doller’s obvious joy of words.  The crafting is careful but not cumbersome. 

The best example of this joy is the final poem, “Each Thing Changed,” where Doller jams sounds and words together to create two (or three) simultaneous poems.  Here are the first few lines:

Each thing charged
with ought bends –

breaks light, which
is ought but

part star. Ought
is, I see

in the thick
book, a vulgar corruption.

Someone heard
someone say

an aught when
they said a

naught. Each thing,
charged with a

naught, bends,
breaks light bad.

The book ultimately moves through multiple formats and landscapes, moods and methods.  What remains consistent is that Dead Ahead sounds good and feels good. Doller will delight you and remind you of poetry’s potential to create with language.  Here, language pushes thought, not the other way around.