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Inside ‘Bastard Heart,’ a world of surprises
Book » Poet’s self-fashioned vision shapes observations in debut collection.
First Published Apr 16 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Apr 16 2014 01:01 am

For poet Raphael Dagold, intimate experiences become the microscope and telescope for considering larger concerns.

Take "Parts Unknown," for instance. A vivid scene of a small bird found dead spurs a memory of a difficult conversation between a (soon-to-be) husband and wife on the making of Jewish identity, the history behind the diaspora.

At a glance

Raphael Dagold at The King’s English

Local poet Raphael Dagold will read and sign his new book, “Bastard Heart.”

When » Friday, April 18, 7 p.m.

Where » The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City

Tickets » Free

More information » www.raphaeldagold.com

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The poem, suddenly a primer on recurrent persecution and uprootedness, reaches far, opening up to a sense of the past that makes it clear that learned tradition — which is attained through study — can affect the body and mind as profoundly as direct experience.

But that’s far from all. There is then a shift back — from the musing on one’s "own blood" — to the couple, their closeness and the distance between them, their relationship seen in terms of a possibly incongruous understanding each has of the self, and, by extension, of one another.

Thus, the history of a people comes to focus over questions that have the impact of a "blunt object," over the body of a dead bird which becomes "all the naked birds" — all of which, for the poem’s speaker/husband, releases "a tide of saltwater, my own body’s heaving."

"Parts Unknown" is typical of the trajectory of Dagold’s thoughts, which unfurl in impressive ways throughout his debut collection, "Bastard Heart."

In "Learning to Eat Apples," a child’s quandary over what to do with the apple core expands into a view of a father-son relationship in the aftermath of divorce. A view of affection, of what to do with what remains, of how one yearns to invent ways to heal.

A mother’s drawing, done absent-mindedly on a kitchen wall, enables a lovely leap in "Getting on a Horse." It plays with where the mind goes in such moments of seemingly inattentive creativity, takes the drawing to be an echo from the mother’s girlhood, and honors it with the expression of a son’s pride.

The title poem, "Bastard Heart," channels images of blackbirds — in flight and alighting upon millet — to explore the ever-changing nature of the body’s most bewildering organ/concept. Through a series of metaphors, which collapse into one another, the heart becomes a thing of constant motion, appearing one second as a (black) hole, the next as a house, and colonizing even the place commonly perceived as its antithesis: the brain — which itself becomes "a heart conjoined by merest bolts of what it doesn’t understand."

Along with two variations — "Tree Heart" and "Dirt Heart" — which come later in the collection, the sequence forms the underlying tension of the work as a whole: that is, the perceiving organ being so hopelessly mutable, the desire to gain understanding almost invariably leads to a crossroads.

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Dagold’s lines can crackle with place-evoking language — such as arabers (vendors of his native Baltimore) and Pinkas synagogue (the site of a Holocaust memorial in Prague). His rich imagery and lyrical turn of phrase feel fresh and come across as essential to the progression of individual poems, which often yield satisfying surprises. ("The thing about loss is that it’s not always around;" "everything’s turned but gravity, insects children wish on above me calm as flesh;" "I am still perfect, says a half marble bedded in dirt. What isn’t?")

While many of Dagold’s poems are rooted in a sense of loss or suffering, their mood is noticeably devoid of bitterness, and suggests a sensibility that resists raw judgement. Instead one finds wistfulness over things gone wrong and a power of observation that seeks to evoke life through its disquieting contradictions.

"I got the feeling early on that there was something writers knew," Dagold says, in recalling what first drew him to poetry. Something "that was different from — and maybe more accurate than" what other people saw. "I wanted to become privy to that."

It seems to have become an imperative. That "Bastard Heart" exhibits a self-fashioned vision makes all the difference.


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