Small Altars Where the Sun Performs Morning Service
By John Thomas Dodds
Reviewed by Margaret Van Every
John Thomas Dodds’s most recent book is a collection of paeans to a woman of flesh who embodies for the poet a holy spirit that connects him to himself and to the universe. These poems are a celebration of transformation from the ordinary to the sublime through love. As his title says, “together our bodies/are small altars” where a daily morning service is performed. Through these poems the reader experiences the exultation of the poet’s union with the divine.
Dodds designed the evocative cover himself, using a photo of Lake Chapala at sunrise. The scene is bathed in the rosy glow that happens briefly every morning to remind mortals of the sacredness of ritual renewal. With drooping wings, a bird is suspended in the golden sky with the wing tips down. Like the bird, we are caught in the ambiguity of existence, rising and falling, sometimes indistinguishably.
The language of Dodds’ poems is natural and spontaneous, the simple words of everyday parlance. Artless expression is not automatic, however, and is far more difficult to achieve than it appears. Dodds is a poet who does it well and is able at the same time to preserve the rhythm. Some of the poems hint of the concise perfection of short form Oriental poetry. In this volume, the first line, always italicized, constitutes each poem’s title.
One of my favorite poems breaks from Dodds’ theme of worshipful lover in praise of the beloved. Here he praises the legacy she leaves to her son as the emblematic woman.
let your silk dust/leave a fine lace layer/on your son’s life/
that he will always trace/your name upon/
let your breath leave a mist/on the window/he views all women from
Some of these poems express the poet’s whimsical musings:
I made love to you/as you walked/towards me/
in my mind you were embarrassed/but you smiled
Or this amusing example, which is one of the few that rhyme—a clever epigram:
the world as we know it/is subtly showing/a little thigh/
and what to our/short sighted surprise/cataracts and all/might we suddenly surmise/
there’s more to it/than meets the eye
Some poems tend to be meditations on how to best live:
on average the only things/we’ll pass along/will be the kindness we’ve given away/
without even noticing/a kindness received/and carried forward/
well beyond the marker/of our lifetime/well into the hereafter
An exquisite tribute to the beauty of the sleeping woman:
winter has a way/of moving a chill/through the veins/of early mornings/
the soft pumping/of your heart/is music enough/to warm this man/
winter needs only lean/across your sleep to thaw
The object of Dodds’s devotion in real life is a visual artist. I particularly like how the two art forms become one and interchangeable in this poem:
I have all these/unfinished word paintings/
in notepads/on napkins/in files/on the computer/
if only I could/with a brush stroke/lay them visible to the ear
I suggest that you open your ear to the visible, sweet contagion of Dodds’poetry. Allow yourself to be carried away, beguiled, and lifted high on the altar of love.