Steve Dalachinsky’s A Superintendent’s Eyes

New York: Unbearable Books/Autonomedia, 2013

Review by Alan Kaufman


Leaves of Glass

Steve Dalachinsky’s new volume of poems, A Superintendent’s Eyes  with accompanying photographs by Arthur Kaye, in some respects brings to mind Robert Lowell’s groundbreaking volume Life Studies because both use a liberatingly loosened mode of composition at a time when bland lifeless uptight verse (MFA work shopped in our day; I.A. Richards’ New Crit-collared iambs in Lowell’s) became–then as now–the national New Yorker standard.


But there all resemblance ends.


Lowell, as we know, was the acclaimed darling of the1950s Kenyon Review/Partisan Review set when he ran up against Ginsberg’s HOWL and emerged bug-eyed with the newly-minted freewheeling informality of Life Studies. Life Studie’s memoiristic revelations of mental illness and general White Anglo Saxon Protestant angst helped to launch the ‘Confessional Poetry’ movement that later gave us Plath, Berryman, Sexton, Jarrell, Schwartz—a generation of suicides.


No one reading Dalachinsky’s volume is likely to kill themselves. Dalachinsky’s gravitas never loses its playful edge. And for sheer beauty and wit A Superintendent’s Eyes levels the current contemporary playing field altogether. It is one of the most important volumes of poetry to appear in the last ten years.


Who is Dalachinsky? He’s far from a complete unknown. He’s won the PEN Josephine Miles Poetry Award. And I could, for instance, while waiting to perform in San Francisco with an eminent senior poet like David Meltzer, mention Dalachinsky and he knows exactly who I’m talking about. Dalachinsky is famous, but only among an elect of avant-garde poets around the U.S. In other words: he is to poetry as de Kooning was to painting before he broke big.


He is the poet that America has been waiting for to free our national verse from its stratospheric sense of self-importance and return us to a poetry of flesh and heart, song and cement, just as Whitman’s Leaves of Grass did in in the nineteenth Century.


Until not long ago Dalalachinsky was a superintendent in a Spring Street apartment building in Soho. The poems, assembled over twenty years, are ash can sonatas to lovemaking with wife, eating out in restaurants, illness, cancelled hopes, money worries, cash scores, tenant complaints, landlord humiliations, ruminations on drug addiction—in other words, LIFE from the ground up.


The titles of the poems containing a number and a parenthesized phrase, might very well be titles to paintings. In one, ‘#60 (toilet)’, he begins:


“my house is being destroyed. They started to build my

new bathroom. I’ve had a tub in the kitchen & toilet in the

hall for years.”


And after a litany of plused and minused reality-based tensions about workers slacking off on the job, his Japanese poet-wife, the lovely Yuko, being away in Japan, moving boxes into the basement and where to relocate his writing space, the poem explodes into a mysterious loveliness and profundity:


“snowflowers breathe into my face

i am stuck like the hands of 2 lovers circling


i know my shapes

but even children grow into wars”


There is nothing in current American verse to equal this. Not since James Wright has an American written with equal intuited grace.


In #59 (anticipating the drill) he presents a Whitmanesque miscellany of Self:


“when i was young i read all the right books. i was sure that if i tried hard enough they would help me cope with my dilemma. my feelings of gross inadequacy, lack of identity & paranoia. well they did.

kafka taught me that it was ok to be a cockroach in a castle& to hate my father; camus taught me that it was fine to feel left out, floating, not remembering my mom’s birthday

or even the day she died. was it yesterday or today?”


and as he gathers steam:


“here you find a handbook of how to deal with rejection, alienation, introspection&extermination…”
and further on:


“i’m an unending compendium of ill will. a malcontent

i sing i bark i contort”


A Superintendent’s Eyes is not only an inspired poetic feat of great importance but in an age of decimated individuality it is a reminder and affirmation of the infinite poetic prism of authentically voiced self. It is the joyful celebration of a reluctant proletarian of genius. Dalachinsky’s poems are the unheard music of the front stoop and the burnt out light bulb, the broken plumbing and the broke tenant. His poems reveal the freedom of the Actual, the sacred precincts of language-ensnared reality. They are, in contemporary American verse, a new country, a new region: an account of Being that becomes Great in the constant address to the stink and beauty of the unprivileged turf of striving existence.