Review of Ways We Vanish (Todd Dillard)

Lingering on family, fatherhood, youth and myriad other core human themes, Todd Dillard’s Ways We Vanish utilizes straightforward, narrative poetry to create a luminous collection.

While I could choose numerous poems as exemplar for Dillard’s style, perhaps my favorite is “’Brother mailed his thumb home from the war….’” Its twelve lines showcase the way Dillard can take the themes and diction of literary fiction, condense them into less than a page, and leave the reader with as much emotion and narrative force as any short fiction.

Laughter Follows Flames

Each poetic narrative plays to the title’s promise, investigating how humans must continually move forward without taking every previous moment’s accretion along for the ride. Often, the poems center grief, which at times find redemption in hope, such as in “Votive Fleet” when the poem drifts into its final line: “How quietly flames move toward laughter.”

Another standout piece that immediately carried me back to the days of hormones and health class is “Young Monsters Watching a Sex Ed Video.” After describing young men and women by leaning into mythology and animalistic traits, the poem pulls back to show the wilderness of youths’ relation to their bodies in the lines, “the body / a destination / distanced by want.”

Ways We Vanish remains so consistently striking and resonant through its hundred-odd pages because Dillard walks the valleys with his reader. The collection often feels like memoir and without attempting to judge what might be literally true, it is hard not to see this collection’s organization and content as anything but Dillard’s life story. It all lends a vulnerability to the poems, which is then enhanced by Dillard not sheathing the vulnerability in poetic license, opting instead for direct, story-driven creations.

I return to the relatability of Dillard’s themes as “B Student” takes me back to senior year of high school. Over a weekend, a classmate of mine sitting two desks away in economics died in a car accident. A similar experience happens to Dillard, whose impact he perfectly captures by juxtaposing his classmate’s death with the life cycle of a bird’s nest. “I don’t see him anymore. / For months the nest overflowed with song. / But its silence is what I remember most.”

Conclusion

I rarely find it so easy to read myself into someone else’s poems. Here though, Dillard opens window after window into a world that I recognize so well. Never straying far from the world’s defeats, from the pain we carry or hope to excise, Dillard knows that for as much of us as might vanish over time, the past never fully lets go. “I knocked and I knocked; / the past would not let me back in.” Here are poems that don’t attempt to unlock the past. Instead, they show a way forward.

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