Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, May 20, 2007

We use the term "musing" to describe a certain kind of thought or speech: purposeful but speculative, quiet on the surface but radically free. The musing mind or voice reaches its object not with a turbulent roar of rhetoric, but with the penetration of fine oil. The poems of Carl Dennis proceed to startling, sometimes even upsetting conclusions by that musing process of mind, alert and patient. A characteristic length for Dennis's poems in his new volume, Unknown Friends, is a page and a half, but "At the Border" is a bit shorter than that, building on a single, ramifying figure of speech: the past and the future like two countries, with a frontier -- each present moment -- between them. In its quiet, somewhat playful way, the poem carries that fairly simple idea to surprising depths, ending with a striking image of delusion:

At the Border

At the border between the past and the future

No sign on a post warns that your passport

Won't let you return to your native land

As a citizen, just as a tourist

Who won't be allowed to fraternize with the locals.

No guard steps out of a booth to explain

You can't bring gifts back, however modest,

Can't even pass a note to a few friends

That suggests what worries of theirs are misguided,

What expectations too ambitious.

Are you sure you're ready to leave,

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