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Poem of the week: Sketches from Edgewater by Ed Dorn


This late poem by the great American documentary poet finds the human spirit singing at the supermarket checkout

It’s virtually impossible to sum up a poet’s work with a single poem. When the poet in question is Edward (Ed) Dorn and the work such a vast chronicle of the fully examined life as his Collected Poems, it might be as well to give up the attempt altogether. But this is Poem, not Collected Poems, of the Week and Dorn’s Collected reveals enough consistency to justify an attempt at representation. Initially honed on the theories of Charles Olson, Dorn’s mastery ranges from the epic to the aphorism. But, at his most typical, he is the supreme American documentary writer, folding a vast knowledge of history and geography, a novelist’s ear for the vox pop, and a radical politician’s scathing acuity into his searching, fluid “tales of anti-cant”.

Sketches from Edgewater comes from the last section of the Collected Poems, Chemo Sábe, a tough-minded, intensely moving cancer-treatment diary. Written the year before his 1997 diagnosis, the poem belongs to an unpublished MSS, Denver Skyline, but it slots into the Chemo Sábe section like a two-way mirror, or a bright portal swinging open between mid-life and old age, robust health and frailty. In part, it celebrates the jaunty courage of survival. And it is slantingly political at every turn, an object-lesson in the kind of writing defined by Keith Tuma, in an essay on Dorn in the Chicago Review, as “a topical poetry unafraid of statement but refusing the easy solidarities of agitprop”.

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