This is a very mature and yet somber book of poetry often with gleams of warmth and humor. This is Mr. Dunn’s most recent collection published in 2014. The poet employs the persona of an older man; we can never be sure what is the mask or the poet himself behind it. The man has worked through many obstacles and suffering, but over and over he manages to find life-giving resolution.
I like his technique of juxtaposing two opposed views. He explores the age-old question, in this poem, of THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG:
The chicken for dinner with earnest friends, the egg for breakfast
with folks who like to play with their food before they eat it.
The chicken fills you up so you can’t move,
The egg cracks open, and choices begin— . .
Yet sometimes the chicken is both necessary and sufficient
and sometimes your earnest friends instruct you
about how to live with the beak and the gizzard.
The egg allows itself to be hard-boiled or deviled.
It doesn’t worry. To live right isn’t an issue.
Here you observe the obvious light humor but the philosophical observations are thought provoking.
In similar fashion he compares a poet to a priest in IF THE POET to achieve even more fascinating possibilities:
Would a good priest find the right words,
as the good poet would, in among the many words
passed down for centuries
on what to think, what to believe? . . .
That is, if the poet mistrusts words, as he should,
makes them pass hard tests . . .
although self-ordained, be more reliable?
But what if the villagers believed
they were saved by a prayer the priest said
one Sunday among the ruins? And all the poet
could do was elegize the ruins? . . .
things got worse
and prayers proved useless, and poems
merely decorated the debris where a house
once was? Would it be time for the priest
to admit he’d known but one book? For the poet
to say he’d read many, and look, it hasn’t helped?
The questioner in the poem ultimately decides that in this world of unclear answers just trying might be enough.
Another striking technique Dunn uses to further his philosophic probing is to focus on a strong woman. In BETTY FRIEDAN’S FINAL ADVICE this historical feminist gives her opinions:
a ship’s captain marry you
unless he’s adept at changing course . . .
Say the words you must say,
but be sure to violate all the stupid stuff.
After the ceremony, change into that funky
outfit that drives only the right men crazy.
Hope your husband will be one of them . . .
Tell him also you have nothing
against God, but remember only an insecure God,
like an insecure man, insists that a woman
must obey . . .
Your job now
is to define what heavenly is, and heaven itself,
and find ways to let him in.
In the last poem a strong woman gives her opinions about relationships. However, in FOR MY SON a father warns his son about a woman strong in the wrong direction:
To marry Alison, Robert, will be to haul water
from a deep well for the rest of your life.
It will be to worry about beauty
instead of enjoying it . . .
You love her soul, you say,
but Robert, a soul is unmapped territory . . .
Well, you’ll have to learn a new language,
hers, which she expects to be understood
before it’s spoken . . .
I just try to make things that last.
I’ve made you up; I’ve given you a chance.
Dunn revels in ways to use the Word IN LOVE, HIS GRAMMAR GREW:
In love, his grammar grew
rich with intensifiers, and adverbs fell
madly from the sky like pheasants
for the peasantry . . .
until roused my moonlight
and the beautiful fraternal twins
‘and’ and ‘but.’ Oh that was when
he knew he couldn’t resist
a conjunction of any kind.
he wanted to break all the rules,
light a candle behind a sentence
named Sheila, always running on
and wishing to be stopped
by the hard button of a period.
We have seen the shadows and the light in Dunn’s poetics. I’ll close with a very moving ending to his poem A COLDNESS:
That powdered stranger
lying there, that nobody I knew?
I was far away, parsing grief,
turning it over in my mind.
He was simply gone, a dead thing,
anybody’s sack of bones.
Only when his son spoke,
measuring with precise, slow-
to-arrive language the father
he had lost, did something in me move.
There was my brother restored,
abstracted, made of words now.
I knew nothing about Stephen Dunn. Perhaps years ago I read some of his poems but had completely forgotten them. I had heard that he taught in New Jersey. That was all: perhaps a good way to come at a work of art for a fresh impression. There are many poets out there. Poetry is a thriving sub-culture like antique collecting, gardening, cuisine, etc. Poetry is used in advertising and song lyrics. Our challenge is to find the best among the many. I’ll choose Stephen Dunn.
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).