Friday, June 10, 2022

Dennis Daly’s Alcaics for Major Robert Rogers, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos


Dennis Daly’s Alcaics for Major Robert Rogers, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos ( Wilderness House Literary Review)

Dennis Daly’s slim volume, Alcaics for Major Robert Rogers, is an effort to capture the ambiguous nature of its eponymous subject. It is Rogers’ contradictions that interest and flummox Daly: should the major be regarded as an “epic hero,” known for “legendary exploits,” and, if so, can this image be reconciled with that of a “sometimes bloodthirsty blackguard and accused self-promoter?” Daly asserts in his introductory comments that he has chosen to “engage the narrative” of the Major through an “angular method.” By “method,” he means his choice to use an archaic Greek verse form to recount Major Rogers’ history.

Taking Daly’s chapbook as a whole, Daly does his “angling” through more than just his alcaic verses. Included in this volume are: maps; reprints of paintings of Rogers and the locales through which the major “ranged”; another Daly poem that is not in alcaic form; numerous prose paragraphs offering a “portrait” of Rogers; several quotations from Rogers’ contemporaries; snippets from the major’s literary endeavors; a “Prologue” providing historical background; three pages of explanatory notes; a twenty-eight item list of Rogers’ “Rules of Ranging.” The alcaic verses of Daly’s title, taken alone, read like a skeletal summary of Rogers’ activities during the battles and exploits of America’s colonial period. It is the supplemental material, which all told make up more than half the chapbook, that puts the flesh on Major Rogers’ bones.

The alcaic verses themselves follow several of Rogers’ adventures. They catalogue battles, massacres, troop movements, harrowing escapes, and exploratory ventures. But what do we learn about what made Rogers tick? Daly informs us that his protagonist’s motivation might well have been vengeance. Rogers’ village and family homestead were destroyed by Native Americans: “Rogers ranged the woods with others, sought revenge,” Daly writes. The question is, does the poem itself, Daly’s declared “angular method,” further illuminate the ambiguities of the major’s character? In other words, does the poem provide insight that the other components of Daly’s volume do not?

By choosing an ancient verse form (attributed to Alcaeus ca. 600 B.C.), what does Daly, or for that matter, what do his readers, gain? Are we stirred by finding in the poem many of the same facts available in the supplemental material shoe-horned into stresses, verses, and stanzas originally created for a different language in a different era? Does lodging Rogers in an archaic construct somehow make the ambiguities of his nature more available to a contemporary audience? Does a description of “skulking” Indians who “answered hurt with horror” warm us to this version of history? Does the use of a biblical “begat” bring Rogers’ time and place closer to us? Daly’s alcaic verses, locked into their stress patterns, often read awkwardly, the action they portray fractured, it seems, less for artistic purposes than for the need to convey information succinctly: “Game driven out of forest haven/ Strangely. Rangers split forces./ Starvation./ War whoops. Companies fall, hacked to pieces.”

Having read Daly’s chapbook (including the poem and all supplementary material), I find it easy to understand his fascination with Major Robert Rogers. Daly has gathered the facts that make his subject (and the Colonial period in general) absorbing. His passion is visible in virtually every line, and the verbal dexterity with which he renders his verses is admirable. But rather than animate his antihero and his ambiguities, the form Daly has chosen produces a memorial that is less revelatory than dazzling: an unironic monument of white marble under which Rogers is buried, deader than dead. My imagination yearns for Shelley’s shattered statue of Ozymandias and the haunting admonition to “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:58 AM

    Hmmmmm. I'm delighted you contrasted my poem with Shelley's.