Michael Dennis (1956-2020)

Michael Dennis died on December 31, 2020. He was a good friend and a good poet. I love him and I miss him, like so many do. I’ve been writing and re-writing this since he died trying to say more or less that, I think. I’ve also been re-reading his poems and feeling grateful that there are so many to sit with now.

As I have been writing and revising this post, it has gradually become more focused on my personal memories of Michael, and so skews to the final decade of his life. rob mclennan’s post offers a more detailed overview of Michael’s life and life in poetry, and I encourage you to read it. I’ll add links to other remembrances as they appear.

I first got to know Michael through his poems. I’d come across his name as I was looking for Ottawa poets. (Michael was an Ottawa poet, yes, but by way of Peterborough by way of London.) I was starting to get to know people in the contemporary small press scene in town, but was desperate to find evidence of a poetry community in the city in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was there, of course, I just hadn’t found it yet, and so jumped at the chance to pick up the first of his books that I came across in the bookstore ecosystem. It was This Day Full of Promise (Fredericton: Broken Jaw, 2002), his first selected poems, found on the low poetry shelves at Book Bazaar on Bank Street. In those poems I encountered so many of the layers of Michael that I came to know in him as a person years later—kindness, sensitivity, generosity, love, humour, honesty, joy at having a good story to tell, and an abiding commitment to poetry.

I met Michael in person for the first time in April 2009. He was participating in a fundraiser for the Al Purdy A-Frame, reading at Library and Archives Canada with Stephen Brockwell, Rob Winger, Gwendolyn Guth, and others. On the book table, he was selling a single copy of a relatively early book of his that was legendary to me—poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986), a book he famously wrote sitting in a bookstore window in Ottawa. (Here is something I wrote about that book a few years later.) I snatched it up, he signed it for me, and I felt like I’d met a proper poet, a poet who had been doing it for decades for little acclaim, certainly for no money. I don’t remember what Michael read of Al Purdy’s, or of his own work, but I remember the force of his reading, his comfort on the microphone, his command of the room. Michael was a great reader, with a great voice, and his poems were often at their best when spoken. To not be able to hear him read anymore–to not be able to listen to him speak anymore–is a deep loss. Here is a legendary reading from 1999 at the Ottawa International Poetry Festival.

Later in 2009–November 28, to be precise, I can date it from a book inscription–I visited Michael and Kirsty’s home on Dagmar for the first time. I’d launched Apt. 9 Press a few months earlier, and Michael was considering submitting a manuscript to me. He invited me by to discuss it, and as we sat in his astounding library, he asked me a hundred poetry questions—who was I reading, who did I like, what was I studying, what books were in my to-read pile, who did I not like. He was feeling me out, trying to find my loyalties in the poetry world, but he was also just excited to talk poetry. He showed me books in his incredible library, handed me stacks to take home, and shared poems. (I did have the privilege of publishing one of his chapbooks through Apt. 9—how are you she innocently asked (2010)—as well as a broadside in 2011 on the occasion of the inaugural edition of Ottawa’s poetry festival, Versefest. Michael read on the opening night with Ben Ladouceur, and gave a typically masterful performance.)

michael dennis office
Michael’s desk and library (Photograph by Michael, I believe).

I was astonished by his and Kirsty’s home, as everyone is that sees it, full to bursting with art—paintings and sculptures and objects and music and books. I’d never seen so much art, so gleefully and lovingly arranged on what felt like every free inch of wall space (and much of the floor and shelf space), pieces big and small. The tour of their house was an education in a life lived for each other and for art. It was beautiful. It is beautiful. I can’t do it justice, nor do I have the knowledge necessary to begin articulating the importance of their collection. Take the time to read this interview to begin to understand the scope of it.

His working life—that is, his non-poetry working life—covered more than most. I’ll defer to the concise overview in his biographical statement from his final book: “His working life has included everything from stints in car plants and copper mines to installing artworks in galleries and doing time as a short-order cook and dishwasher in a strip club; he ran a small boutique hotel in the ’80s, was Santa at the Kmart in Charlottetown one year, and opened a non-profit ESL school in Jablonec nad Nisou, Czechoslovakia, immediately following the Velvet Revolution. Michael has driven a taxi and a truck and had a brief stint as a private chauffeur.” I also remember him telling me that he worked with Yann Martel in a bookstore (or library?) in Peterborough. He told me that Yann inscribed a first edition of his early book, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, but that it had been misplaced or stolen somewhere along the way. I open every copy I see, and genuinely thought I would find that copy again someday and return it to Michael.

In early 2013 he started his blog, Today’s Book of Poetry, and I think that it had a profound effect on him as a poet and as a member of the small press community. In the early years of our friendship, he often had a chip on his shoulder about poetry. There was a sense that he had perhaps not had the literary career he at one time expected, and he had complaints about the state of things. rob mclennan, in his post following Michael’s death, does an admirable job of covering the ground of Michael’s publishing career, some of the hits and misses, and notes for example that Michael wasn’t included in any of the Ottawa-focused anthologies of the 1980s and early 1990s. While not anthologies, Michael did give me a handful of broadsides from those years in which he appears with other poets of the Peterborough-Ottawa line and beyond, including Barry Dempster, Mark Frutkin, Ward Maxwell, Riley Tench, Dennis Tourbin, Richard Harrison, and Armand Ruffo.

I think a good deal of credit needs to go to Christian McPherson for setting up the website, which allowed Michael to begin writing “appreciations” of contemporary books of poetry (I helped in a small way scanning book covers). It quickly gathered steam, and before long he was receiving regular packages of books in the mail from publishers across the country and beyond. The first post was dedicated to the work of a friend, Ward Maxwell, who has done exceptional work documenting Peterborough poets at his own website. Another early post collected some videos of Michael available online, that will remain well worth your time. And this post makes me smile and breaks my heart—to think he won’t sit our library again and finger books that I half wonder if he’ll smuggle out with him. By the time he wrapped it up in 2020, after his diagnosis, he had written appreciations of over 800 books of poetry. This year, he received an award for the blog—the Meet the Presses’ Special Recognition Award for Commitment and Devotion to Small Press.

Most importantly, I think the blog helped him to fall in love with poetry again. The chip on his shoulder receded, and when we spoke about publishing, he expressed more gratitude and less frustration. He was pleased to have published as much as he did, and was newly impressed by the volume and quality of poetry being published in this country. He would come out to readings with stacks of books to have signed. He would come home from trips with new boxes of books. He devoured every contemporary book of poetry he could get his hands on–the last time he gave me an estimate, he thought there were some 8,000 books of poetry in his library. Here is a profile of Michael by rob mclennan that shows evidence of this shift. And here are two profiles of the blog by Stuart Ross, one from 2013 and one from 2020.

He gave more and more readings, despite having announced that he was giving his “final” reading on a more than a few occasions. Memorable  ones included this reading with Stuart at Tree in 2017, and a house reading in November 2019 that stands as one of the finest afternoons of poetry I’ve enjoyed (also with Stuart, and held at the home of Ottawa’s greatest and lowest-profile collector of poetry, Alexander Monker).

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Photograph by Jennifer Huzera

He began to publish more, including chapbooks with a huge number of small presses—Proper Tales, and Burnt Wine, and above/ground, and shreeking violet, and Monk, and phafours, and Sunday Afternoon Poems, and Apt. 9. Stuart Ross lovingly edited the substantial Bad Engine: New and Selected Poems (Vancouver: Anvil, 2017), and followed it up with a new trade collection in 2020—Low Centre of Gravity (Vancouver: Anvil). He also appeared in translation in Norwegian this year (Ghosts in Japanese Taxis [Trondheim and Minneapolis: A+D, 2020], a publication for which Jenn and I had the pleasure of hand-stitching roughly half of the edition). He had a late-career renaissance, and his work is perhaps more accessible and in-print now than at any previous point. Here is Michael describing his own “small press writing day”, and it is a lovely glimpse into his days, writing and otherwise.

 

He also unquestionably produced some of his finest work in the final years—Low Centre of Gravity is among his best. It is oddly prescient, a book about funerals and reflecting back, about family and art, and as always about love and poetry. The reception of the book will no doubt be coloured by his death, but the bulk of the poems must have been with the publisher long before the events of the past nine months. Please buy Bad Engine, and buy Low Centre of Gravity, and then keep your eyes open in used bookstores for his early books.

Michael’s poetry has been described with great insight by many. Stuart Ross, in his introduction to Bad Engine, described Michael as “a people’s poet, a populist poet” and argued that the “greatest appeal of Michael’s work” was “his conviction, his directness.” Yann Martel, in his blurb for Arrows of Desire, wrote that Michael’s poetry was “honest, unflinching, needy, sad, joyous, unmistakably human.” Maggie Helwig described Michael’s poems as being “of unflinching honesty and deep tenderness.” The back copy of Bad Engine calls his poetry “direct, curious, pissed off and honest.” Barry Dempster wrote that “he is like a man who is trying to teach his heart to speak on its own.” He’s been compared to Charles Bukowski, and Al Purdy, and Eileen Myles. Here is a small handful of poems of his that I love:

The poems will endure, I’m sure of that. Equally important, the kindness and generosity that he sent out into the world will endure in those who were lucky enough to be his friend. Jenn and I received more than our share of his and Kirsty’s love. He once picked us up from the airport, after midnight and unprompted, when we had to cut a vacation short for medical reasons. He delivered supplies when Jenn threw her back out. When I finished my PhD, he appeared at the door with a signed Henry Miller book. When Jenn defended her Master’s Thesis on Jimmy Stewart, he appeared with a signed letter from Jimmy Stewart that Jimmy wrote to Michael in 1993 in response to a letter of Michael’s. He was also a devoted blood donor (over 200 donations, I believe), and I will think of him every time I sit in that chair in the future. Donate if you can–in Michael’s words, “the experience is entirely rewarding. It is one of the few times when you empirically know you have done something GOOD.”

I received more than one ride home over the years. I remember one in December 2019 (I think…). I work in the same building as Kirsty, and as I left to trudge home through the snow on foot, Michael was there in the car waiting to pick Kirsty up and extended a kind offer as always. Instead of fighting the snow and ice on the Alexandra Bridge, I got to sit in his and Kirsty’s warmth, listening to them talk about their days. It was lovely, as it always was to be around them together. A dinner invitation from them was a gift, and I regret the ones we had to turn down over the years.

Michael - 1
Photograph by Kirsty Jackson

The first time I visited him, he told me that Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” was his favourite poem. I don’t know if that was still true years later, I wish I had asked, but it is easy to see the influence of that poem on him. Auden’s poem reads, in full:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I’m certain he could recite that from memory. Michael wrote many variations of that poem over the years—like we all do when we find a poem we wish we had written. The sense of tragedy, of suffering, being a matter of scale and perspective, and of life going on, as it must go on, regardless–these ideas formed one core of so much of his work.

Michael’s poems told us again and again that the world goes on, that “one thing will happen / and then a little later / another thing” (“happy birthday to me”); that after each funeral “the sun set and then rose / just like every other day / somewhere a cloud, some rain / another place flowers” (“my mother and I sat waiting for death”). Michael’s poems show us the sad parts, and the disasters, and the suffering, but also the flowers in the other place, and the small victories despite it all, and the modest but significant parts in which we should invest our hopes—“hope for one more night in bed / one more morning / the sun coming up from the east / her eyes seeing mine” (“one more day”). The steady stream of stories being shared on social media, and in other blog posts, shows that part of the world did stop and notice this particular moment of disaster, that it has not been met with indifference but instead has been met with love.

The tragedy, as Michael told us, is not that the world goes on, of course the world goes on—it is that even if you notice the important things, even if you see the suffering and the beauty and somehow get the proportion of it all right, time still runs out. It is what is articulated by the final epigraph he chose for Low Centre of Gravity, his final collection:

“When God punishes you, it’s not that you don’t get what you want. It’s that you get everything that you want, but there’s no time left” (Miles Davis).

After the final poem in the same collection, he snuck in three more quotations , leaving Henrik Ibsen to have a final and more joyous word:

“And what if I did run / my ship aground; / oh, still it was splendid / to sail it!”

And so, all of that to say, I miss you and I love you, Michael. Thank you for everything.

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Michael launching Bad Engine in front of a standing-room only crowd at the Avant Garde Bar in Ottawa.

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