Dogs Dream of Running collects forty-eight of John Lehman’s wry melancholic poems. Perhaps it’s bad form to recommend reading a book’s Epilogue before commencing with page one. However, Lehman’s end-of-the-book essay, “How I Started Writing Poetry,” is so revealing in unexpected ways that it’s an ideal starting point. The essay evokes a Michigan summer in 1972. On vacation from the high school teaching job he held at the time, Lehman sets about trying his hand at writing a detective novel. He recounts for us the opening chapter, which is vivid and suspenseful. But soon discouragement rears its head and he stops writing. Setting the novel aside, he finds a comfortable spot in the back yard and begins rereading Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for inspiration. His wife grows increasingly irritated by what she perceives as her husband’s indolence. They bicker for days and finally he packs a bag and heads for Canada on his motorcycle. His journey on the road is studded with the kinds of small elegiac epiphanies—a rain storm, a detour to mystery writer Ross MacDonald’s hometown, the purchase of a junk shop teakettle—that will come to define Lehman’s poetic sensibility.
The Epilogue is, in a sense, a road map by which to navigate Dogs Dream of Running. Readers will recognize its themes threaded throughout the book. Detective fiction and film noir tropes appear again and again, sometimes humorously, sometimes with genuine foreboding. In the poem “Hard-Boiled, Retro-Pulp Neo-Noir,” we learn that “Mike Hammer is alive and/ operating outa Rockdale, Wisconsin,/ kicking butt as an ad copy writer.” Lehman, we’re not surprised to learn, has worked in advertising and currently lives in Rockdale, Wisconsin. The reconstituted Mike Hammer, when not composing “two-fisted advertising,” broods over his failed novel, something titled The Big Metaphor. “No one is/ ever quite what they seem,” the poem concludes, mixing detective story duplicity with a lament for lost dreams and unexpressed yearnings. In another film noir poem, “Danger Ahead,” the beckoning highway becomes a symbol of discomforting transformation: “When you/ arrive you’re another person.”
In Lehman’s work, the self is shadowy and fluid, tenuously poised between Keatsian idealism and soul-grinding Hobbesian pessimism. The narrator in the poem “Note to the Insurance Company on my Sixtieth Birthday” compares life at forty to life at sixty and finds little to celebrate: “I was in financial/ trouble then as I am now.” “I suppose,” he writes, “the subject/ should be death.” Vowing instead to change his worldview, he resolves “to live my life like a/ poem, each year a line with some/ rhyme and reason.” Can “a prolonged metaphor” transcend our desperation and rekindle our passion for living? It’s not an idle question in these poems. Painfully aware of the low-esteem afforded poetry in today’s marketplace, Lehman refuses to go gentle into that good night. “Have you ever stolen a collection/ of poetry?” he asks us pointedly in “Pornographic Literature,” a poem composed after a disastrous book-signing (no one showed up) in Appleton, Wisconsin. Fantasizing a shoplifter who is overcome with literary lust and slips a volume of verse into his pants, the poet imagines the “thrill/ of rushing toward the night with/ this forbidden shape pressed/ tight against your groin.”
While the Epilogue suggests an innate antipathy between domesticity and unfettered creativity, the poetry tells another story: marriage and blood ties are essential touchstones for artistic contemplation. Poems such as “Mother’s Day,” “Editing My Wife’s Autobiography,” and “After My Son’s Divorce” are memorable crystallizations of entwined lives. Sentiment is never indulged for its own sake. A lovely indirect eulogy for the poet’s late father is folded into the title of a strong piece about an ailing friend, “My Father, Too, Had Alzheimer’s.” Images of communion, theatrical artifice, and doubled perceptions reinforce the dual tribute to father and friend: