Jeff Vande Zande
American Poet: A Novel
Bottom Dog Press
Jeff Vande Zande’s novel, American Poet: A Novel, reads like a love song (or a sonnet perhaps) to Michigan and the town of Saginaw specifically. Initially however, it feels more like a sorrowful dirge, reflecting on the broken dreams and creative stagnation of Denver Hoptner, a young, budding poet.
The story centers on Denver as he returns to his hometown, Saginaw Michigan—which might as well be Nowhere, Michigan. The people of this small, working class town stand in stark contrast with Denver, whose love of poetry often sets him at odds with the real world. From the start, Denver is an outcast who can’t land a job, can’t mend his eroding relationship with his father, nor patch things up with his ex-girlfriend, and to make matters worse, he can’t even write one word, let alone a single poem which he finds satisfactory.
Much of the work has a biographical feel to it and Vande Zande does little to hide this fact; Denver is a young recluse, fresh out of college with no friends, no connections, and no life. Many of the descriptions of the bars, clubs, restaurants and businesses have a touch of familiarity about them, both respectful and resentful. Despite Denver’s dissatisfaction with Saginaw, there is clearly much love and care that went into breathing life into this city. Clearly, the almost familial relationship Vande Zande has with Saginaw seeps through the writing, and it can’t help but have an impact on the reader. Aside from Heywood (himself a young, budding poet) in many ways, Denver’s closest friend is the town of Saginaw itself. With the death of his mother and his poor relationship with his father, Denver’s familial affinity for Saginaw is both understandable and endearing.
The most endearing of Denver’s actions is his attempt at saving the Roethke house, which was badly damaged in a recent fire. Theodore Roethke (pronounced ‘Ret-Key’) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet from Saginaw and along with d.a. Levy (an iconoclast poet from Cleveland, Ohio), symbolize everything Denver wants to be as a writer: contrarian, brave, and brutally honest. It is in their poems that Denver sees what is wrong with Saginaw and the world in general. In the words of Levy:
when riding the winter pony
a trail of bells
deep in the mind
& if one listens
perhaps the sound
the young rider through the
Analyzing the poem himself, Denver reaches this conclusion: “That winter pony. It is life. And death. We’re riding, but the pony is taking us into winter. Life leads up step by step to death. It’s going to happen. What can we do about it? levy was saying that we have to listen. Not to the shit, all that noise out there ... all the crap. We have to listen for the quiet stuff underneath all the static … those softly ringing bells, man. That’s the stuff poetry can help us hear. The snow is falling—it’s always falling—and listening closely can make the ride a little less cold.”
The world, or in this case Saginaw is not listening to those "softly ringing bells." Most people in Denver’s hometown are too concerned with the daily grind, the "falling snow," to worry about the things that really matter to them. Perhaps this is why no one other than Denver cares about the derelict Roethke house; people have lost touch with themselves and chasing their dreams, instead choosing to live a life devoid of imagination and originality.
At times, American Poet can feel like a cliché, as it follows the adventures of a young, misfit writer whose father can fix anything except the relationship with his son, yet it manages to feel less like a social commentary and more like a memoir. Vande Zande also manages to dilute the more serious moments with timely humor and simple, direct prose.
As a writer myself, I couldn’t help but relate to Denver, especially his feelings of unrest and unfulfillment. The world is not amenable to writers and poets, and this unsupportive environment is precisely why Denver harbors feelings of resentment and guilt. Saginaw, Denver’s environment, is sapping his creative energies. Only when Denver realizes the place he had been running from can also be a source of inspiration does his poetic and artistic spirit change his outlook on his hometown. It is in the dirt, in the poverty, in the people, that his writing will come and there he can make meaning of his life. If there weren’t places like Saginaw, there would be no poets.
Denver’s ex-girlfriend and Saginaw native, Heather, proves this, as she becomes a successful, published poet. Her seemingly simple poem about her mother shows how God is in all the little things:
... God is not in the movement
God Is The Movement
but God is also not
in the words of this poem …
The Poem Is The Mark
where God happened
where God was …
After reflecting on Heather’s poem, Denver responds: “It’s like a little prayer … The letter—well, not the letter—but the writing of the letter, the movement it took to write the letter … that’s God, too.” And this is what Heather captured in her poem, and what in a very real sense, Vande Zande captures with his novel.
American Poet: A Novel is a prayer, a love song, a poem, a dirge, a rhyme, a rhythm, a hymn, a lamentation to the town and the people and the crushed dreams and the burgeoning hopes. It is a soulful ballad to Saginaw, Michigan, that captures Vande Zande’s experiences and recollections of what it is like to be an outsider. His life in Saginaw is a spiritual experience, a love affair that is akin to experiencing the Almighty himself. It is all this and more, and—even though some may have their doubts about him—God is certainly in it.
Cardoso is a writer of science-fiction and comedy and sometimes both. He has published one essay and graduated from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in English.