I remember Dobbs as an editor and poetry reviewer for the Toronto Star and Saturday Night, and hadn't bumped against his name for a long time, so it was intriguing to recently find his first poetry collection, The Eleventh Hour, published in 1997.
Contemporary English speaking poetry is lacking in unironic sexuality. Oh, sex is often mated, as it were, with animal symbolism, archaeological ruminations, historical substitution, gender politics, postmodern code, but frank discussion, dripping with sweat? The ground is dry.
Enter Dobbs' obsessions in The Eleventh Hour. I appreciate the subject matter, and the elder writer occasionally has something to say about the horizontal act. But for one who, decades ago, criticized Irving Layton for being "puritan" in his depiction of sex, and who criticized D H Lawrence for being "priggish" about fucking, Dobbs' sober assessments are curiously and consistently removed from direct engagement. I don't mean that the narcissistic authorial "I" needs to be enshrined, nor do I think that anecdotal diary entries, boasting or self-lacerating, need be the way forward. But Dobbs' procedure is cold contact, like kissing through mesh wire, with the acts he writes about. (It's here that I realize many deconstructionists -- if any are reading -- would wonder what the problem may be. But I won't grace their emotionless smirking with defensive reasoning or offensive stance. Many times, arguing for a position only makes it appear that the other side at least has merit.) Scouring mythology (Northrop Frye is given two separate nods) overloads the concentration on sexual transgression; recounting sexual brutishness throughout history is elevated into an attitude of Olympian maturity. One looks, with barren hope, for a striking image, a personal sigh, an agonized dispatch, a fond reminiscence. Where emotional content is promising, delivery is not only flaccid, but noncommital.
Speaking of noncommital, the final line of "Massacre of the innocents" is: "What other remedy is there but laughter". But this laughter, from what precedes it, is a deflection, a hollow laughter, a way of turning down the volume before forgetting the event altogether. The event? The mass slaughter of babies before their mothers. Did I miss a subtle irony? I suppose that excuse can be used in almost any poem presuming to hide layered ambiguities where none exist. But what equally sinks this poem is that it isn't a poem at all, in any sense. It is reportage, fantastical or not. Here is the opening stanza:
"Killing a whole crowd of babies at once
was even more harshly repugnant to an age
accustomed to killing them one at a time
than to our own which hardly even ventures
on single murders but glumly carries out
mass slaughter with the sanction of principle
or declared wishes of the majority."
Those are the deadest lines of poetry I've read in quite some time. The subject may as well have been effective needlepoint techniques. And if you strung that sentence out to a prose tidbit, the rhythm more easily resembles a sportswriter scribbling to meet a midnight deadline. No, that's not fair to the sportswriter. He or she is under time constraints, and so errors of narrative, even grammar, are more naturally forgiven. But Dobbs has had many of these poems, reworked or not, gathering dust in a top shelf before submission.
I was surprised, therefore, to encounter the concluding sixteen poem section VI. The mood, though marred by pedantic asides entrenched throughout the work, finally has some sass and variation, easily trumping the consistently somber, elegiac droning which precedes it. And the humour here, unlike the occasional attempts in sections one through five, doesn't induce wincing and groaning.
I just noticed that Dobbs' latest book, a memoir, has been lauded by various reviewers as "peripatetic" and "worldly". I don't know. I haven't read it. But whatever the travels of the writer, the base camp and final destination is still the human heart. It's too bad that Dobbs is unwilling or unable to show much of that volatile territory for the reader in The Eleventh Hour.