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The Personal That Matters’

ISSUE:  Summer 1996
New and Selected Poems, 1974—1994. By Stephen Dunn. W. W. Norton. $22.00.

In his “Introduction to the 20th Century,” (from the 1978 collection A Circus of Needs), Stephen Dunn writes of daily miracles (e.g., babies being born, people falling in love) taking place against a spirit-crushing backdrop of war, technocracy, and alienation. He concludes:

    We learned to put
history books down gently on the table,
conscious of the Hitlers in them, the Stalins,
monsters that were ours and no one else’s.
In difficult times, we came to understand,
it’s the personal and only the personal that matters.

The last line of this poem could easily be taken as the governing sensibility of Dunn’s work. This collection, drawing from eight previous books as well as a strong batch of new poems, is full of finely observed moments, small triumphs and surrenders, microscopic epiphanies. Is that enough? Yes, it is, especially when the work trusts the reader to pay attention, as these poems do. Dunn’s writing is elusively simple. At first the diction seems to approximate the prosaic, but then the odd phrase jolts you out of normal time and offers up the moment, nuanced and full. In “The Sudden Light and the Trees,” for example, (from Landscape at the End of the Century,1991), Dunn describes what it was like to have a violent neighbor: how he called the Humane Society to take away the abused dog, how he didn’t understand why the abused wife stayed, how he dreamed of killing the neighbor, how he feared him. When a sparrow got into the common basement and the neighbor wanted to shoot it, Dunn writes:

I said I’d catch it, wait, give me
a few minutes and, clear-eyed, brilliantly
    afraid, I trapped it
with a pillow. I remember how it felt
when I got it in my hand, and how it burst
    that hand open
when I took it outside, a strength

that must have come out of hopelessness
    and the sudden light
and the trees. And I remember

the way he slapped the gun against
    his open palm,
kept slapping it, and wouldn’t speak.

Most of this writing is transparent. Paying no heed to style, we read on to see what happens, until the peculiar syntax of “burst/ that hand open,” (emphasized by breaking the line at “burst,” ) stops the flow, reminding us that someone chose and ordered these words. That reminder somehow increases the tension at the moment the suspense ought to end. That is to say, when the bird flies free the plot seems to be resolved. But the tension actually builds, now stemming largely from what is not said: that it is not just the bird caught between hopelessness on the one hand and “the sudden light and the trees” on the other. At the level of craft, that conjunction of “burst” with “hand” plants a seed that bears fruit in the final image: the neighbor’s hands, frustrated, itching to do violence. At the level of theme, the end of the poem reminds us that not much has been accomplished, that the neighbor is still who he is. There will be other birds and other days. All these shades of meaning unfold beautifully, capturing the complexity of the moment. It’s exceptional writing, and I don’t know what more one could reasonably ask of a poet.

In writing about family, too, Dunn tends to focus on the little things. There are no poems here about seeing one’s father in the eyes of one’s child, none about how watching a child grow brings one to terms with one’s own mortality, etc. Instead, Dunn writes about the trick his daughter played on the substitute teacher, (as a goof, showing off for her friends, she pretended to be British, adopting an accent for a day). As things happen, the regular teacher was quite ill, and the daughter (“in it now for the duration”) was stuck playing the role all week. Trying on a role in jest, she finds herself trapped. A parable? Perhaps, but not much of one. The week ends and life goes on (almost) as before. Again, Dunn isn’t after grand themes, just the way we invent ourselves, and are invented, a little at a time, trying on this role and that, getting confirmation or not, keeping some and dropping the rest. There is no broad sweep to the history of our lives, he seems to be saying; episodes do not add up to increments.

Lastly, it would be wrong not to mention Dunn’s capacity both to be surprised and to surprise the reader, to find the miraculous lurking within the ordinary. “Decorum,” about a poetry class’ heated debate regarding a profane word in a student’s poem ends quite unexpectedly. The teacher seems to duck the issue, but as the poem sinks in the reader understands (like getting the punchline of a joke a little late) that he has offered a pretty good response to the problem. I really admire the way the poem offers its sympathies to both sides of the quarrel, then abruptly seems to change the subject. Similarly surprising is “Belly Dancer at the Hotel Jerome” which shows a performer winning over a drunk and skeptical audience. The performer is a blond, Midwestern-looking dancer calling herself “Fatima.” The audience can tell at a glance that she probably learned belly-dancing at the local community college, that she’ll be terrible. Fatima, though, is able to “dance the mockery out / of that wrong name in this unlikely place,” reminding us that life really does unfold a little at a time. I don’t know what will happen in the next minute, and neither do you, the poet seems to be saying. Life is full of wonder. In “Something Like Happiness,” watching his dog chew at fleas, Dunn writes:

    Once a day, the flea travels
to the eye of the dog for a sip of water.
Imagine! The journey, the delicacy of the arrival.

Such startling events and unanticipated turns of phrase appear frequently in this poet’s work, style reinforcing theme. Stephen Dunn’s New and Selected Poems 1974—1994 will reward many readings and is well worth owning.


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