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Literature as Time-Space Travel: On DeWitt Henry’s Foundlings: Found Poems from Prose

By Richard Wertime


A culling? A sampling? No; much better: DeWitt Henry’s Foundlings: Found Poems from Prose is an inspired “divining” of an unsuspected presence hidden away in the texts that yielded each of them.

It’s hard not to picture, with considerable pleasure, author-finder Henry prowling over old and familiar ground, practicing the ancient and still-mysterious art of dowsing, his divining rod—a literary Geiger counter—dipping over subterranean treasures, hidden well-springs, water sources. Discovering priceless artifacts, he either leaves them in situ or lifts them from the soil, with an archaeologist’s expert care, admiring them, eventually situating or resituating them.

The reader, like this reviewer—for all that it might be ideal—need not have experienced each and all of the texts wherein Henry has “found” his poems. Indeed, one of the delights of this volume is that it so readily entices—invites us for a first visit to works we don’t know yet, and beckons us back equally to some old friends, perhaps long neglected. And, in between these extremes: those works that we continue to have right at our fingertips but have had no suspicion that they might be thus harvested.

Let’s add, before entering into any particulars, what a fine job of book-making this volume represents as a work of the Pierian Spring Press of Sheridan, Wyoming. In addition to its typographical allure, its simple clarity (together with its sheer solidity as book), we commend the press for rendering Henry’s daughter Ruth K. Henry’s outstanding artworks with the crispness and tactful density of color saturation that make them instantly present to the viewer’s eye. In “prefacing” each of the found poems as they do, her compositions invite expectation—even as they hint often enough at what’s to follow. In all cases, they furnish a rich “commentary” best understood after reading each poem. Cumulatively, they remind this reviewer—so many of them “inset,” or recessed meaningfully in frames—of the extraordinary artwork of Joseph Cornell.

A reviewer—say what you will—can’t not play favorites. Mine span the broad arc from (a) works I know so intimately to (b) those once familiar, but left unvisited for much time to (c) the ones I’ve never known. And there’s the author’s intriguing decision to ransack himself—revisit his own work, drawing twice on his award-winning novel, The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts, once from his Safe Suicide. Among his self-extractions, my own favorite is “Alone in Grief,” drawn from The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts—a poem that, in its poignant evocation of the startling commonness of death, reminds me of a line from Updike’s novel Couples: “death was as ordinary as the arrival of the daily mail.”

Beyond Henry’s “take” on his own work, I’m captivated by his beautiful distillation of Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River: Part 1,” which so aptly condenses down to its essence Nick Adams’s struggle, his post-combat PSTD comprising the dangerous currents, really, in that big “two-hearted” river, to bring order to his world, and restore joy to it, through the ceremonial act of camping. “Geezus Crise,” Nick says, lifting a spoonful from his plate—one of literature’s singular moments. Henry gets it just right.

Then, at the antipodes, among the works I do not know, I find myself drawn irresistibly to “foundlings” of several of the women authors engaged in the volume. Henry’s poem drawn from Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle” summons to my mind and heart the tale’s fierce sorrow, its protagonist’s terrible suffering. I’m also especially drawn to the robust-racy rendition of feminist outrage in “Dizgusting,” drawn from Samuel Richard’s Clarissa—a novel that “twins” with Richardson’s Pamela in its pioneering exploration of the sexual entrapment women endure at the hands of predatory, privilege-drenched men. Such a marvelous voice—I presume for Clarissa herselfHenry finds here.

So much more here to relish. I’ll conclude by citing Henry’s complex rendering of the meditation in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse on the mutability of all things temporal—où sont les neiges—and art’s valiant (hence doomed?) effort to “fix” the flux of things. Especially astute, this “divining,” for seeing how the quotidian, the details of the everyday, inform the reality of passing life. And there is that haunting, vacuous echo in the Marabar Cave in Forster’s Passage to India that Henry captures so vividly, meanwhile making no mention of poor Mrs. Moore, one of Forster’s favorite characters, whose spirit is fatally undone by her experience of that cave.

Foundlings: Found Poems from Prose is an especially inviting instance of intertextuality—texts “speaking,” as it were, among themselves, in this instance echoing from one to another. How lightly DeWitt Henry wears his impressive erudition here. The volume, in its richness, reminds me that literature is, and ever has been since the deepest days of antiquity, the truest form of time-space travel.


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