There's a deep sweetness in the way that Stuart Dischell, a romantic poet with a funny bone, returns to the past in his three books: Good Hope Road (1993), Evenings & Avenues (1996) and Dig Safe (2003). The latter, his most recent collection, is his best to date -- its title derives from the brightly colored warning signs that construction workers spray paint on sidewalks and roadways: "Steam rising from the coffee and exhalations/ Of workers on break around a manhole cover,/ The abbreviated utilities scribbled in Dig Safe" ("Crooked Wood"). Dischell cleverly employs the term "Dig Safe" as the reigning metaphor of the book, as both a wish and a command, for how one might settle down and delve inward, approaching the treacheries of one's own past, the hard turning wheel of time lost and found and lost again. We're going to the erotic underground -- the underworld -- of a male psyche, and it's as if he's sending regards ("be well, dig safe") as we enter the danger zone where necessary but potentially hazardous psychological work always gets done.
Dischell's discursive lyrics have a light touch and a serious undertow. They have the jaunty quality of recollection, of trying to recall the past as honestly as possible, reporting back from the front. One thinks of them as invocations that come from the wide, middle regions of life, which is to say that they have a kind of equanimity about them. His particular way of approaching a subject, his strategy of attack, seems influenced by C. K. Williams and Robert Pinsky. It is close kin, say, to Carl Dennis and Tony Hoagland, both of whom also have a neighborly way of piercing the inner mysteries and taking up -- taking on -- the social world.
Dischell's poems typically operate by summoning the past, rather than simply inhabiting it, as so many traditional lyrics seem to do. Thus one poem characteristically begins: "Trying to remember what it was like to live/ Here and how it was I used to feel and fit/ Into those days -- like a convict in the movies/ I have come back to put on my old clothes" ("The Report"). "My memory is an upright sweeping back . . .," he continues. "A man would be a scarecrow in a birdless field." Another commences: "Hey it's been fourteen years since that summer/ We drove the little green Citroen out of Paris/ Through Lyon to the blue coast and went Mediterranean,/ Wearing no or little clothes, dozing in the bedchairs,/ The naked democracy of the beach, appreciating the sun/ Who was now making famous European love" ('The Squanderers").
There's an antic strain humming through Dischell's writing -- "When people say they miss me,/ I think how much I miss me too,/ Me, the old me, the great me" ("Days of Me") -- but his underlying subject is loss, which is what gives his poems their poignancy. "A Tenant at Will" provides a strong example of how his sensibility works:
A Tenant at Will
I no longer live on Linnaean Street
Where I watched the others going to work
As I drank coffee and smoked a pipe,
Inventing my current existence.
I was not bothered by the phone much.
No credit cards and little to bank.
My typewriter had just gone electric.
Nights I returned after drink and talk
To the punctuation of the white spark
On the trackless trolley wire.
And the slow-moving populace of summer
And the naked sub-lessee
In the lamplight flossing her teeth
Whether I looked or not were there.
Honks and voices and stereo speakers.
Those were the windows of that life.
Some faced a courtyard, the others a street.
I would like to visit who lives there now,
See how my face remains there framed.
(All quotations are from Stuart Dischell's "Dig Safe." Penguin Books. Copyright © Stuart Dischell, 2003.)