Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stephen Dunn hits it hard

Stephen Dunn swings for the fence with his poems, and when he connects, the crack of the bat is loud and the ball is lost to the suburban trenches.What I enjoy about this poem, "And So", is Dunn's clarity and the ease in which this sequence of images, with the tone modulating ever so from point to point. It's a poem about nothing in particular and things in general, about the things that come itno the narrator's field of vision and the memories that are sparked after his failed phone call and his resulting walk through the town he lives in. I especially liked the Nina Simone citation, since one of my absent minded habits is to start thinking of or even hum a sung a phrase someone else had said had inspired; it's like a private intermission from the affairs of the day. This is a record, also, of the narrator's own thinking, thinking, in this sense, being not an interior essay one fashions as if preparing for debate, but impressions of what's seen conveyed in broad strokes, sketches of the real world one is lost in. Less argumentative than reflective, with the reflection being refreshingly unprofound yet elegantly modest, it is a poem of someone starting a point of the day in a casual funk who comes to realize that the world in miniature, his suburban (or exurban) locale, is abuzz with others wrapped in their chores, their jobs, their hobbies lest they think too much on the emptiness around them and drive themselves desperately crazy.

And So
Stephen Dunn

And so you call your best friend
who's away, just to hear his voice,
but forget his recording concludes
with "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, but I have other plans,"
you're always tempted to respond,
as an old lady once did, the clerk
in the liquor store unable to laugh.

Always tempted, what a sad
combination of words. And so
you take a walk into the neighborhood,
where the rhododendrons are out
and also some yellowy things

and the lilacs remind you of a song
by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"
is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill
two fidgety deer cross the road,
white tails, exactly where

the week before a red fox
made a more confident dash.

Now and then the world rewards,
and so you make your way back

past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,
knowing the soul on its own
is helpless, asleep in the hollows
of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

This reads effortlessly, and it's an easy mistake to assume it came to him effortlessly .It has the breezy informality of what Ted Berrigan could do with this remarkable faux sonnets. It's hard thing to pull off , the moment-to-moment progress of someone moving and thinking as they move about a community they know, and even Berrigan was, much of the time, a little too much off beat personality, too little genuine poetry. Dunn is a bit more formal than Berrigan (who's charm lies in his shambling verse), and that bit of reserve brings us a sharper focus as his gaze and thoughts engage. It's a swift stream .


  1. Anonymous10:15 AM PDT

    This is what Langston Hughes does for me as well; tricks you into thinking, for a moment, that his poetry might be simple, until you find yourself thinking over and over about something you've read.

  2. Yes, I prefer a poem that does that kind of indirection. It's rarer than one would think. Especially good in this vein is Thomas Lux's poem So You Put the Dog to Sleep:

    "I have no dog, but must be
    Somewhere there's one belongs to me."
    --John Kendrick Bangs

    You love your dog and carve his steaks
    (marbled, tgender, aged) in the shape of hearts.
    You let him on your lap at will

    and call him by a lover's name:Liebschen,
    pooch-o-mine, lamby, honey tart,
    and you fill your voice with tenderness, woo.

    He loves you too, that's his only job,
    it's how he pays his room and board.
    Behind his devotion, though, his dopey looks,

    he might be a beast who wants your house,
    your wife; who in fact loathes you, his lord.
    His jaws snapping while you sleep means dreams

    of eating your face: nose, lips, eyebrows, ears...
    But soon your dog gets old, his legs
    go bad, he's nearly blind, you puree his meat

    and feed him with a spoon. It's hard to say
    who hates whom more. He will not beg.
    So you put the dog to sleep, Bad dog.

    (from New and Selected Poems, 1995)

    My initial reaction was to take this is as hilariously mean spirited and leave it at that, but a third and then a fourth reading revealed a more complex musing; our obsession with attaining comfort and remaining comfortable and discarding things we've declared our deepest feelings for once, blaming our depression on the object of desire, not our wanton need.


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