- Tangled Up in Poetry
Thom Tammaro & Alan Davis, eds.
New Rivers Press
426 pages; Print, $25.00
Hal Ackerman's "Bob Dylan and Me," the first poem in the new edited book collection of Dylan-inspired verse, Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan, is paradigmatic of the book overall, for it speaks to the faux intimacy between a titan in American songwriting and his most cultish of fans. For Ackerman, Dylan is a divine vision, a Pegasus touching down in a city basketball court: "He's supposedly up at Woodstock recovering from the motorcycle thing, / But clear as shit this is him." At 426 pages, Visiting Bob casts a wide net since Dylan's long life and body of works are voluminous entities unto themselves.
Sized like a coffee table book, Visiting Bob tracks the major plot points in the life of an artist born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota in May of 1941. In three short stanzas, Jan Chronister's "At the Armory in Duluth" sees Dylan as the phoenix rising from the ash of Buddy Holly's fatal flight: "They call it the day the music died / but a seventeen-year-old from Hibbing / made sure that didn't happen." From there, we visit Dylan in his various guises: Dylan as the Greenwich Village folky, Dylan as the electrified rebel at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan as the druggy rocker in white face in the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan as the Jew-for-Jesus, and, in his current phase, Dylan as the randy bluesman and crooner. What's astounding is how Dylan's jingle-jangle rhythms have been absorbed by 121 different poets. "We're tangled up in blue sheets," writes Aliki Barnstone while Anne Becker sighs "Ah mama, can this really" at the end of her "Lament for Bob Dylan." Such alchemy makes Visiting Bob one long, loose-jointed collection that you can pick up and read on any page. Anyone who knows Bob Dylan, or beat literature more generally, knows that the road is the reigning metaphor for human existence. "The Bodhisattvas That We Were Are Still On The Road" by Theodore Dorgan alludes to the opening of Dante's Inferno—"Nel mezzo del cammin, or a little further on . . . where the road began, and further back"—since, for Dylan's deepest followers, he functions in the same way as Virgil does in Divina Comedia. In the personal poem, "The Day My Brother Meets Bob Dylan," Liza Porter portrays Dylan as more candid and approachable than popularly thought; the singer (reportedly) told her brother: "I was suddenly on this road that never ends on this tour that never ends and I been on it ever since." Just as Dylan parks his car in the parking lot that is eternity, Visiting Bob positions its muse at the crossroads of forgettable pop music and the literature that lasts.
Many of the collection's more moving lyrics reference Dylan but only in a roundabout way since his music nostalgically sets the scene for his listeners' remembrances. One standout is Edward Byrne's "Listening to Dylan with My Son," which is about his autistic son and his innate responsiveness to certain sounds. "Alex always recognizes / Dylan's vocals, even the aging raspy lilt pleases / enough to create a smile . . . received like a lone wolf's cry in the cold night." Given that Dylan is now a figure of multigenerational fame and one resembling what the English Romantic poet John Keats called, two centuries ago, the "chameleon poet," the fact that the sound of his voice can be a kind of cryptic currency between a parent and child is moving and proof of his tremendous appeal. That fame has only grown since 1977 when, in Annie Hall, Shelley Duvall gushes to Woody Allen "He's a god! He's got millions of followers who would crawl all the way across the world just to touch the hem of his garment!" to which Allen retorts, "It must be a tremendous...