James R. Dennis
Correspondence in D Minor
Paperback, 978-1-62288-168-0, 72 pgs., $24.00
“Correspondence,” according to Merriam-Webster:
late Middle English: via Old French from medieval Latin correspondentia
1. a close similarity, connection, or equivalence.
2. communication by exchanging letters with
D minor is a minor scale based on D, consisting of the pitches D, E, F, G, A, B♭, and C. Its key signature has one flat.
Bach wrote fugues in D minor; Mozart wrote requiems. Music in minor keys is frequently described as sad, and there is a melancholy in this collection, and a kind of rueful mirth.
Decades in the making, Correspondence in D Minor is James R. Dennis’s debut poetry collection, though a handful of these poems were previously published in journals such as Analecta and Reflections. The subject matter ranges far and wide, including philosophy, history, science, religion, friendship, family, and romantic love. This ranging can be a meditation on witches inspired by a suburban Halloween night (which includes epigraphs quoting William Shakespeare, Ray Bradbury, and Darth Vader), or conjuring Theodore Roosevelt in the Amazon. Many of Dennis’s poems are letters, mostly to historical figures (Gandhi, Cervantes), and his poems incorporate a variety of forms: a villanelle, an elegy (for Elmer Fudd, who has taken a regrettable turn), an ode to an old red coffee can standing vigil.
Currently gracing San Antonio, Dennis is the Renaissance man from Odessa, Texas. He is a retired attorney, a poet, a novelist, co-author of the Miles Arceneaux Gulf Coast noir mystery series, and a Dominican friar. Dennis is sympathetic to the human condition, while simultaneously demanding accountability.
He is grappling with regret and longing, as well as amusing us and himself, frequently with irreverent humor. Dennis’s work accommodates both “skedaddle” and “imprimatur” in the same poem. The cleverness evident in these poems belies a humility, just a guy trying to do no harm, and maybe figure out how to escape the cycles of history along the way. Dennis is skillful and inspired, both the artist and the technician.
Some major themes of Correspondence in D Minor are duality, paradox, and the slippery slope of certitude. Still, Dennis would like to reconcile irreconcilable differences. In “Letter to Trotsky,” the poet feels a certain kinship with the younger revolutionary, before all the blood:
“You don’t know me, but we have a good deal in common,
although I never knew Lenin.
Like you, I would never have trusted Stalin.
You and I were both educated in Odessa, and while I was never in prison there,
I did kind of make a mess of
In “The Least Obvious Evil Possible,” Dennis takes a run directly at the amoral nature of science:
“How then do we measure the value of a man;
how do we weigh the balance of a life?
Do we look at the good left behind
or the pain that was caused?
Do we examine the average, the mean,
or is this where all judgment withdraws?
One cannot remove hubris
with a surgical knife.”
A few of these poems are strikingly beautiful, and frequently kind. From “Homage”:
“We will make room, we will make room:
a space for hello and goodbye, and how do you do.
Room enough to work and a place to sit idle,
room enough for sinner and saint,
room enough for god and idol.
Room for yours and room for mine
and for a thousand small-time portrayals
and for a thousand lesser angels and betrayals
before the cheese and before the wine.”
And this from “Letter to a Russian Jew”:
We could sail to Crete or hike in the Alps,
watch the horses in Kentucky or examine the temples in Kathmandu.
I leave this to your discretion. I do not care where we go;
I do not care what we do.
Lest you think Dennis all somber and profound, Galileo’s refrain in “Eppur Si Muove” is “and yet, it moves.” His computer and printer have had a falling-out in “Technology.” A paraphrased line from Sweet Baby James’s “Mexico” shows up in the missive to Trotsky. This makes me smile.
This slim volume is a sumptuous letter-pressed, limited first edition, the font an atmospheric Cloister Light, which traces its lineage to a twelfth-century European typeface, Gutenberg’s choice for the first printed Bibles. A tactile pleasure, it feels good in my hands. Correspondence in D Minor is, in a word, elegant. In closing this review, I will quote from the last page: “Amor enim, sine qua nihil est.”