Martin Settle
The Teleology of Dunes

Main Street Rag Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-1-59948-498-3

Reviewer: Richard Allen Taylor

I didn’t know that word “teleology,” so, like any word lover, I looked it up. My guess was that it would have something to do with the study of movement, as in the shifting of dunes across the desert. Not exactly. “Teleology,” I found, has several definitions, most involving concepts of purpose and causality, especially “final” causes. For example, a teleological explanation to the question, “Why is there air?” might involve how air is manufactured and how gravity binds it to the Earth, as opposed to an invented or attributed explanation, such as “God made the air for us to breathe.”

Ask the same about dunes and you might come up with sand and wind as the “causes” of dunes. Ask what caused this book to happen, and you might conclude that the author felt compelled to compare his life and the progression of the human species in general to the slow march of dunes across a desert known as time.

In the title poem, Martin Settle writes,

…we like to think of our seventy or so years
as purposeful leaps
rather than accident and accumulation.
yet our skin is sand sloughed in the wind….

The poems in this collection are accessible and entertaining, yet packed tightly with imagery and meaning, often providing snippets of the author’s experience, family history, and tributes to deceased friends and relatives. Many of Settle’s poems express environmental concerns; others prompt a sense of that which is wild and primitive within us.

In “‘The Era of the Wild Apple Will Soon Be Past,’” (the title a quote from Thoreau), Settle marks events in his life against an apple tree remembered from his childhood. At first, the tree symbolizes his youth, a time when he climbed to the “top branches/ to find an apple untouched by worms.” Later, the tree evokes a memory of his first wife, who “had apple-tinted cheeks./ I still have a picture of her/ picking in an orchard.” After the tree died, he set up his daughter’s telescope “in the circle left by the tree.”

In “Poem to Percival and all Knights of a Second Marriage,” about love found, love lost, and love found again, the author writes about a character who works for the Department of Sanitation:

one morning a woman in a bathrobe
runs after you carrying a sack of garbage.
for some reason that you do not understand
you swing both of them onto the running board.

And thus begins a beautiful romance.

A brief note about Settle’s writing style: he has almost no use for capital letters except at the beginning of a poem and in indicating the first person singular pronoun. Otherwise, his grammar, punctuation, and syntax are very conventional and precise. An exception is the lovely and successful lyric poem to his wife, written entirely in unpunctuated lines:


is a creek whose eyes
reflect willows

her twists and turns
take you to pools

where water striders
play on ripples

her lips are minnows….

“Ghost Dance,” one of my favorites in this collection, dives deep into the nature of men and what it means to be a male member of the species:

We men
with breasts that give no milk,
bodies unmoored by moons,
stomachs not caved for birth,
created ceremonies of meat.

…wore masks to become
the monsters we killed.

…the ancient songs
have lost their magic,
the bison do not return to the plain….

let us tear the sleeves from our suits,
rip collared shirts to bare our chests,
put our ties around our foreheads.
let us circle the lapping flames
and dance ourselves into stories.
let us count coup to the end
when we leap into the sea
the wolf will return to our eyes.

While acknowledging, in this poem, that the urge to hunt and make war is deeply ingrained in our psyches, I don’t think Settle is advocating that we all go wild, shoot elephants, and make war on each other. The poem simply admits that there are times when we need to let our hair down and give some air to our more primitive instincts. For college students, it’s Spring Break. For the raucous, face-painted variety of hell-raising, any NFL game will do. For the rest of us, it’s vacation, getting away from the routine, or getting out of the rat race. The image of dunes shifting over eons now takes on a broader perspective. The movement occurs not only in every life, but in the collective history of humankind, as the winds of change blow constantly from one generation to the next.

“Continental Drift and the Men from Pangaea” is a fine example of how change can widen the gap between generations (the name “Pangaea” refers to the one large continent on ancient Earth in the time before the continents split and drifted apart to form the continents we know today.). In this poem, father and son have become estranged:

but plates passed in silence
at the dinner table
until distances became so great
the son said he was leaving.
the father said nothing
as a lobe of his heart broke away.

…they faced one another
across an Atlantic of sorrow
their cliff shores
holding the same layers of stone,
same strata of fossils.
those who knew them would say,
“You two are actually very much alike.”

That part about cliff shores “holding the same layers of stone” and “same strata of fossils” is scientifically correct and the proof that Pangaea once existed. Settle reminds us that, if you’re going to use scientific or historical information in your poems, do your homework.

The collection concludes with a series of tributes to the dead. Some are addressed directly to the deceased; others are third-person accounts remembering those who have died. Of these, my favorite is “An Epitaph for Chilly Willy,” an affectionate portrait of a homeless but big-hearted alcoholic who lived and died on the streets of Charlotte.

A native of Illinois, Martin Settle is a writer, assemblage artist, and retired educator living in Charlotte, North Carolina.