W. W. Norton & Company

Lines of Defense by Stephen Dunn

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By Ray Greenblatt 
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         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.
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          I like his technique of juxtaposing two opposed views. He explores the age-old question, in this poem, of THE CHICKEN AND THE EGG:
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          The chicken for dinner with earnest friends, the egg for breakfast
          with folks who like to play with their food before they eat it.
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          The chicken fills you up so you can’t move,
          The egg cracks open, and choices begin— . .
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           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.
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          The egg allows itself to be hard-boiled or deviled.
          It doesn’t worry. To live right isn’t an issue.
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Here you observe the obvious light humor but the philosophical observations are thought provoking. 
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In similar fashion he compares a poet to a priest in IF THE POET to achieve even more fascinating possibilities:
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          Would a good priest find the right words,
          as the good poet would, in among the many words
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          passed down for centuries
          on what to think, what to believe? . . .
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          That is, if the poet mistrusts words, as he should,
          makes them pass hard tests . . .
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          wouldn’t he,
          although self-ordained, be more reliable?
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          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? . . .
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          things got worse
          and prayers proved useless,  and poems
          merely decorated the debris where a house
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          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?
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The questioner in the poem ultimately decides that in this world of unclear answers just trying might be enough.
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        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:
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          Don’t let
          a ship’s captain marry you
          unless he’s adept at changing course . . .
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          Say the words you must say,
          but be sure to violate all the stupid stuff.
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          After the ceremony, change into that funky
          outfit that drives only the right men crazy.
          Hope your husband will be one of them . . .
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          Tell him also you have nothing
          against God, but remember only an insecure God,
          like an insecure man, insists that a woman
          must obey . . .
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          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:
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          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.
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          Dunn revels in ways to use the Word IN LOVE, HIS GRAMMAR GREW:
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          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.
          For love
          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.
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          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:

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          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.
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          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.
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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).
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Gigantic Cinema – A Weather Anthology – edited by Alice Oswald and Paul Keegan

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By Byron Beynon

What’s the weather like today where you are? Is it raining? How do you feel when you hear the rain?  The sun maybe shining, and a gentle breeze massages your face. Giant clouds inhabit the sky above you, faces or objects begin to take shape before your very eyes as your imagination feeds on weather’s images.

Novelists, poets, dramatists, film-makers, artists, musicians, have all been inspired by the kaleidoscope and mysterious moods weather has kindled before and within us.  I live in south-west Wales, where most of the weather conditions come from the Atlantic bringing rain.  Even the trees, growing in open, exposed places, lean towards the north-east because their sap runs weaker on the windward side.

The poet Ted Hughes in his essay entitled “Wind and Weather” wrote “Have you noticed how your mood depends on the weather?  All living things are natural barometers, and change as the weather changes … we experience these changes in our bodily chemistry as changes in our feelings.”  He goes on to say that “The great American poetess, Emily Dickinson, has many wonderful poems about various weathers” he chose the poem which begins “There came a wind like a bugle” – as one of her best on weather regarding the landscape coming alive “as if the touch of the wind and the strange light had turned it into a nightmare.”

In this new anthology edited by the poet Alice Oswald and the Penguin Classics editor Paul Keegan, we have a wide and thought-provoking selection of prose and poetry about the weather, reactions both formal and fleeting, actual responses, found in journals and jottings, diaries and letters. Whether it be rain, volcanic ash, nuclear dust, snow, light, fog, hurricanes, flood, dusk and dawn, we find a flow of reactions.  We read writers from across the ages, giving their responses and feelings on climate from Ovid to Elizabeth Bishop, Virginia Woolf to Pliny the Younger, Charles Baudelaire to Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare to Charles Dickens, Dafydd Ap Gwilym to Paul Muldoon and many others.

In the preface we hear of William Hazlit’s essay on “My First Acquaintance with Poets”, he describes his walking holiday along the Bristol Channel with his new friend:”A thunder-storm came on while we were at the inn, and Coleridge was running out bare-headed to enjoy the commotions of the elements….”.  Further along we read about Daniel Defoe’s report of the Great Storm of 1703, that “the air was full of Meteors and fiery Vapours”.  In his journal for 20th July 1778 the following details are given by Gilbert White “Much thunder. Some people in the village were struck down by the storm, but not hurt.  The stroke seemed to them like a violent push or shove.  The ground is well-soaked.  Wheat much lodged.  Frogs migrate from the ponds.”

Open the antholody at any page and you will find something to delight and fascinate.  From the fourteenth century, Yoshida Kenko writes in his “Essays in Idleness” – “One morning after a pleasant fall of snow I sent a letter to someone with whom I had business, but failed to mention the snow.  The reply was droll: “Do you suppose I can pay any attention to someone so pervserse as to write a letter with no word of inquiry about how I am enjoying the snow? I am most disappointed in you.”  Now that the author of that letter is dead, even so trivial an incident sticks in my mind.”

The poet Louis MacNeice creates atmosphere in his 1935 poem “Snow” – the opening begins:

“The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.”

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In his journal of 1892 the artist Edvard Munch writes:”I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – I felt a wave of sadness – the sky suddenly turned blood-red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – I looked out over the flaming clouds like blood and swords – the blue-black fjord and city – my friends walked on – I stood there trembling with angst – and I felt as though a vast, endless Scream passed through nature.”

This rich antholody takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the varying moods and canvases of weather, words heightening and buffeting our senses with light and shade, creating atmosphere, this influential action of weather.
 
 
Byron Beynon lives and writes in Swansea, Wales.
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