Slipstream Press, 2002
For anyone unfamiliar with the work of J.P. Dancing Bear, not having seen his name in the many literary journals that have published him, What Language makes a strong introduction. This collection won the Fifteenth Annual Poetry Chapbook Competition from Slipstream Press, and it is easy to see why. Dancing Bear writes with an interesting mix of lyrical voice and underlying sarcasm, elevating the poems with language then toying with the reader in subtle, underlying tones.
In "Black Ice," for example, Dancing Bear writes with wit and charm about scenes that might be purely bleak in another's verse:
black ice is the enemy of my family
my brother hit black ice
my brother drove his car off a cliff
this hurts enough to be poetry
Cleverness runs throughout Dancing Bear's work. The DMQ Review editor finds a satirical take on most things. This can be seen vividly in the poem "Jesus With a Gun":
You get your own and leave
mine alone, Jesus says,
gesturing his peacemaker.
Jesus says it's a matter of God
and the Second Amendment.
He pushes back a strand of greasy hair
and mutters on about state's rights
and the Confederate flag
and the loving body of Jesse Helms.
However, to say this chapbook is defined only by wit and sarcasm would be an injustice. Dancing Bear also has moments of utter charm and eloquence, shown clearly in the title piece, "What Language":
I will give her a heron feather
pressed in the folds of a blank book
intended for the longest love poem.
In what language do I write
the words that fit her?
I am an uneducated man
feeling out the letters
of a new vocabulary.
Recommendation: It is always hard to say "buy it" about a chapbook, knowing these rarely find their way onto store shelves. At the same time, poets often make most of their chapbook sales in person by doing readings, signings, etc. That in mind, look for Dancing Bear should he read from his work somewhere nearby. Go check it out, and buy a copy of What Language while there.