Stephen Dunn, |
(W.W. Norton, 2000)
Few poets achieve such a plainspoken poignancy as Stephen Dunn. I think of Cavafy, C.K. Williams, Philip Larkin, Horace -- masters of the craft gifted with the knack for discovering scraps of truth within the simplest words. "You might as well be a clown/big silly clothes, no evidence of desire," Dunn suggests in the book's opening poem. This is the language that gets you clawing through the pages to get to the lines that know you, that approve of some private cowardice or failure you wouldn't dare confess even to the closest friend.
But there is a kind of trust Dunn builds with the reader here, a wisdom so simple yet complicated enough that you could not quite have put your finger on it as quickly or accurately as he. I mean how his poems know that "as we fall in love/we are already falling out of it." How they resist self-pity in the face of fate: "Because in my family the heart goes first/and hardly anybody makes it out of his fifties/I think I'll stay up late with a few bandits of my choice and resist good advice." It is the sort of statement that gets me flying out of my chair pumping my fist as though I'm cheering on the home team at a high school football game. I am happy for the speaker of these poems the way I was happy for Hulk Hogan as a kid.
Dave Smith writes that Dunn may not be correct, but he is never wrong. Smith, himself a phenomenal and overlooked American poet, is exactly right: Dunn's voice is unafraid, skeptical, warm, consoling, bitter, celebratory and -- most of all -- accurate.
Books like Different Hours become "tombstones on our lives," as James Merrill says of love. I know that is true of my own experience with it. I was in a Virgin Records, still reeling from an atrocious break-up whose pain refused to leave me. The book collection upstairs was as miserable as I was at the moment; shelves so poorly stacked that it seemed the store was about to do away with selling books altogether. But then a dark and vibrant cover caught my eye; a book by someone named Stephen Dunn whom I had not only never heard of but who also happened to have won the Pulitzer. In the terrible frame of mine I was in that afternoon, I needed nothing more than to listen to what these poems had to say:
Those Trotskys of relationships,
Coming across these poems for the first time, it felt as though they were spoken from somewhere inside of me, scratched into my skin; lines that were extended hands strong enough to pull me out of the dark. If angels are not physical presences, then they are actions. They are moments like these in which you hear your name called from a poorly stocked bookshelf in a record store and stumble upon the road that takes you to who you are. Though I am no longer a captive of the bitter junkyard that was my heart at that time, I have never stopped enjoying these poems. I read over Different Hours as well as Dunn's other volumes to this day. Taken as a whole, Dunn's work is one of the most reliable and compassionate friends I have ever had.