Dunn has made a career of Dunn telling it like it is. How, you ask, in this day and age can that be? Who has the leveling eye that is not shaded and consequently changed irreparably by frame of its own report? Well, consider his approach:
I've had wives and lovers
trust that I know a little about trying
to remain whole while living
a divided life. I don't easily open up.
If you come to me, come to me
so warned. I am smooth and grayish.
It's possible my soul is made of schist.
The speaker here is a stone. But no matter: it's also all of us and him. And here is the fallout:
Life itself is promiscuous. It feels right
to place a few renegade details together,
let them cavort. A moment later,
it feels right to discipline them,
smack them into shape,,,
Dunn offers in place of an aesthetic a push to be truthful in the service of a higher good, which turns out to be no "good" at all, no higher auspice, just a naturalism that would have pleased Johns Keats and Lennon:
For you and me
it's here and now from here on in.
Nothing can save us, nor do we wish
to be saved.
Let night come
with its austere grandeur,
ancient superstitions and fears.
It can do us no harm.
We'll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will.
The thing is, the refusal of mystery in light of the "austere grandeur" of the indifferent world, is itself an elegiac response to mystery. It says, in effect: this is the equivalent of that, although with some unavoidable hesitation. As a stance, or final position, it is reactive, since it only makes a big deal out of our unsponsored solitude in view of a world-view that is no morebut which still provides a powerful ghosting effectby presupposing its importance. Before it heads to the deep end, it is the poetry of the stiff upper lip, but with a drink on the patio. Dunn's downsizing of ego, expectation, hopes, etc., are of a piece with much of the demystifying of lyric intimation in recent years (see Ira Sadoff and others) and of art generally (see Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow). Dunn is okay with the loss of spirituality, that heart's mirage, and this new collection is not the first place we learn it. Indeed, it has been one of Dunn's themes to confront the New Man in himself, the one who appears without pre-approval, since his early collections. So, no Rock-n-Roll heaven for poets, no Tradition of the lyrically saved, no Yeatsian Vision. In sum, no Golgonooza, and yet, in another sense, with the falling away of all these struts of spirituality that used to prop up the poet's tower, there can be nothing left but Golgonooza.
Stephen Dunn's rise to prominence in the '70s coincided with issues surrounding poetry's accessibility. How to retain readers, and after the rise of M.F.A. programs, how to "build audience"? Much contemporary poetry left readers perplexed (not that this impression has been alleviated with the years), and after the '70s poets branched off into schools whose mission was, in part, to stay relevant either dumping pronoun-centric lyrics or by looking for extra-literary models. Dunn was one of several emerging poets who knew that accessibility has a lot, way beyond matters of prosody, to do with timing of phrases, and that the model for that was stand-up. Today, our examplars of thatBilly Collins, Tony Hoagland, David Kirbycould exchange the 92nd Street Y for The Comedy Club. Dunn looked to be a member of that tribe, but having his own concerns and following the bent of a different kind of talent, went his own way.
His superb new collection, Here and Now, breaks no new ground, and yet Dunn's advances are as hard to pin down as his breaks. In it you will find the hard-boiled realist behind whom stretches a romantic shadow, in whose silhouette the poet stands, figure to ground, drink in hand, eyeing the party. Dunn is smart on his feet, and loves to track a thought or feeling to its lair; this is a result of his poetics of ambivalence. That is, each subject automatically introduces its opposite. Reality arrives with theme and variation already in place, ready to be experienced. He is one of the smartest poets around, and I don't mean in terms of marshalling ideas. I mean in terms of mental footwork and the timing of movement, things more central to poetry's success than theoretical, religious, or political philosophies underpinning the Muse's hairdo.
The world thought
I didn't understand it,
but I did, knew that to parse
was to narrow
and to narrow was to live
one good way.
Awash with desire
I also knew a little was plenty
and more than I deserved.
And because I was guilty
long before any verdict,
my dreams unspeakable,
I hunkered down
and buttoned up,
ready to give the world,
if I had to give it anything,
no more than
a closed-mouth kiss.
("The Puritan and the World")
"One good way" reminds one of Flaubert's startling remark about the bourgeois family: "They're right, you know." Dunn glosses this sentiment, or something like it, throughout Here and Now. In "Ars Poetica," a poem about Fred Astaire and the sense of sprezzatura, he puts it this way, "I could tell he was feeling/ for limits, and what he could bear." Dunn expends a lot of energy on limits in this collection, especially when you consider his real meat is not limiting, but spilling over. His theme, as in previous collections, concerns the push-pull of relationshjps and self-description, and how we reconcile the difference between spilling and limiting.
One of the more vivid poems to emerge from this collection is "If a Clown," which begins with a nod to most people's ambivalence about this representative of the comic species. But Dunn uses the hypothetical opportunity to make yet another ars poetica (there are several in this book).
If a clown came out of the woods,
a standard looking clown with oversized
polkadot clothes, floppy shoes,
a red, bulbous nose, and you saw him
on the edge of your property,
there'd be nothing funny about that,
As with clowns, so morals: context is all. A context-less clown make no more laughter than a context-less moral directive makes approbation. Art, too, requires a minimum of outline, although as Impressionist painters were fond of pointing out, no "outline" occurs in nature:
And if you were the clown, and my friend
hesitated, as he did, would you make
a sad face, and with an enormous finger
wipe away an imaginary tear? How far
would you trust your art?
At the same time that he is imaging contexts for clowns, he imagines quite literally going to the dogs in "Don't Do That," a bad-boy poem that has become something of a Dunn speciality, although as I say, his real fare is not the provocation as such, but recognizing something like justice the moment when it must be reined in:
My hosts greeted me,
but did not ask about my soul, which was when
I was invited by Johnnie Walker Red
to find the right kind of glass, and pour.
I toasted the air. I said hello to the wall,
then walked past a group of women
dressed to be seen, undressing them
one by one, and went up the stairs to where
the Rottweilers were,
That moment comes when it is the dogs themselves, the presumed comrades in misrule, belong to the same system of constraints as the poet:
They licked the face I offered them,
and I proceeded to slick back my hair
with their saliva, and before long
I felt like a wild thing, ready to mess up
the party, scarf the hors d'oeuveres.
But the dogs said, No, don't do that...
In "Shatterings," Dunn moves into poet schtick imagining a class taught in "Whatever I Feel Like Talking About," where a few students have "mastered the boredom they think conceals them," a few hunger students remain, seeing through the poet-teacher's impromptu account of Trotsky and Rimbaud. Because the account reeks of self-aggrandizement, two exits follow, one by an excitable student who exclaims,
let's tear up
all our notes from this class-ridden class,
let's caress the world with leaflets.
But a second student, an ephebe version of the True Poet, himself trues the poem with his exit:
But there, isolated among them, is that boy,
my Rimbaudian, all testosterone and refusal,
the one I always teach to, look how
he shrugs and heads toward the exit
as if the future already had assured him
it has openings for someone so unafraid of it...
Dunn has always hinted that a sense of sense of estrangement tags most interpersonal dealings (the word "interpersonal" would be evidence of such). It goes hand-in-hand with other kinds of doublenessambivalence, secrets, duplicity that provide his subjects. In "The Melancholy of the Extraterrestrials," he steps into the Stepford/Conehead world of simulacra who weary of their mission:
At night I'd bring home a weariness,
and when I'd look in the mirror I'd see a creature
made of smoke and pretense, losing desire
to please the mother ship...
If blending is a burden, how much more is it to maintain the pretences of duty? But pretense is another version of Astaire's burden, and if we are to endure being squeezed by our contradictions, we only have to wait. In the fine, accepting "Evenings like This," fury is not a meal that nourishes forever, for
here comes Barbara with the shameless
store-bought cheesecake called Strawberry Swirl,
which, for a while, tends to end all arguments,
though there was a time we'd have renounced it
back then when evenings like this were emblems
of excess and vapidity and a life that made us furious.
With Dunn, there is no acceptance without attitude, no provocation without its supporting rhetoric. And all that adds to energy and pictures of middle-class American life captured using the Vivid filter. Dunn's poems, as they accumulate in the mind, finally rise to an almost novelistic status: I put him not only with Dobyns, Kumin, and Collins, but with Updike, Cheever, and Ford, narrative bards of leafy developments in disturbia, with their affairs and stubborn self-begettings, mutts that won't learn, promiscuities, and old, biting memories.
Winter Feature 2010
- Poets in Person An HD video visit with Stephen Dunn in Frostburg, MD
- Jonathan Aaron
- Michael Blumenthal
- Billy Collins
- Philip Dacey
- Carl Dennis
- Gregory Djanikian
- Stephen Dobyns
- Stephen Dunn
- B.H. Fairchild
- Kathleen Graber
- Jane Hirshfield
- Tony Hoagland
- Dorianne Laux
- Thomas Lux
- D. Nurkse
- Alicia Ostriker
- Lawrence Raab
- J. Allyn Rosser
- Dave Smith
- Gerald Stern
- Ellen Bryant Voigt
- C.K. Williams
- Robert Wrigley
- David Rigsbee reviews Here and Now: Poems
by Stephen Dunn
- David Rigsbee reviews Here and Now: Poems