'Anything you say can and will be used against you.' This sentence from the
Miranda rights sometimes comes to me when reading poets who have begun to
irritate me. No poet can avoid writing lines that seem to point towards the
poet's personal poetics; reading Stephen Dunn's Different Hours, I found myself
collecting such lines to use 'against' him.
For example: 'It's anybody's story' ('Empathy'). This line appears almost
halfway through Dunn's book, and when I read it, I thought: 'Yes, which makes
it nobody's story.' Too often, Dunn's poems work at such a level of generality,
with such an almost complete lack of scenery or location, that they could be
happening to anyone, and hence to no one and hence, not to someone. Although their
subjects are quite down to earth, the poems are filtered through an abstracting
self-consciousness that strips away any engagement with things, with specific
experiences, so often they just aren't engaging. Such reflection makes them nobody's
story more than somebody's.
Later, in 'Visiting the Master,' Dunn concludes with the advice that 'the
master' gives 'the follower': 'Use what's lying around the house. / Make it
simple and sad.' This is good advice to a poet, and in fact Dunn's poems do
have a domestic atmosphere, with occasional references to home, rooms, meals, a
wife, or a color television. Further, they do not aim to be complex and happy;
they generally end on a melancholy note. But the house feels emptied of things
and of anybody in particular, and the simplicity and sadness feel resigned and
banal rather than the result of the successful internalization of any 'master's'
advice as part of a spiritual or poetic quest.
'Use what's lying around the house' is echoed in the conclusion of the next
poem, 'The Metaphysicians of South Jersey':
breakfast, as always, the metaphysicians
begin to list the many small things
observed and thought, unable to stop talking
this place and what a world it was.
This poem does indeed provide a nice list of well-observed things: 'coffee
shops in Vineland / and deserted shacks deep in the Pine Barrens'; 'the last
hour of a county fair, / blueberry fields covered with mist'; 'a good ball
game, too, well pitched, lots of zeroes / on the scoreboard.' This is not
'anybody's story', but a story belonging to a specific group of people (even if
the 'metaphysicians' are only indirectly named by the humorous title). The poem
uses 'what's lying around', 'the many small things', and it does so with wit.
But the poem's very success in doing so makes the earlier poems' failure to do
anything of the sort seem even more striking: here, the implicit poetics has a
foundation; elsewhere, Dunn seems to forget the imperative of that physician of
North Jersey, William Carlos Williams: 'No ideas / but in things.' Like
Williams, I am not calling for a poetry of 'no ideas' at all, but for a poetry
that, as in this Dunn poem, earns it ideas by providing a foundation for them
in 'the many small things'.
Later, in 'Nature', Dunn writes of the effect of the 'gray on gray' of day-long
rain: 'If you stared long enough: / tiny shadings, as if someone had painted /
the varieties of boredom.' It is almost too easy to use these lines against
Dunn: why should one spend time looking for 'the varieties of boredom' in his
poems? If they are intended without irony (and Dunn is not an ironist, or at most
one of extremely 'tiny shadings'), such self-reflexive lines are usually
positive claims and not something to be mocked. If Dunn wants to write about
'the varieties of boredom' as a positive goal, I can think of two comparisons.
With Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wanted to write a novel about boredom.
Contrary to the opinions of generations of French lycéens (for whom Flaubert was
surely not writing), the novel itself is not boring and not abstract. In
fact, it is almost overwhelmingly specific. Secondly, John Berryman's 'Dream
Song 14' captures the overwhelming feel of boredom without, finally, being
boring itself: 'Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so', Berryman begins,
to conclude, 'heavy bored': 'And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a
drag / and somehow a dog / has taken itself & its tail considerably away /
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving / behind: me, wag.' The mannerism of
Berryman's ampersands bores me (Dunn, at least, is never typographically
mannered), but Berryman, like Flaubert, demonstrates that the pursuit of 'the
varieties of boredom' can be a worthy literary goal. The problem with Dunn's
'tiny shadings' is not a problem with such a project itself, but with its
execution: 'anybody's story' is not the right vehicle for the project. Emma
Bovary and Berryman's 'Dream Song' figure Henry are both definitely somebody in particular, even
where their stories have general implications.
The last lines of Dunn's that I want to use against him (well, almost the last
ones) are from the book's final poem, 'A Postmortem Guide'. The poem is not
without wit, as its subtitle suggests: 'For my eulogist, in advance'. But it
also makes Dunn's characteristic evasiveness a poetic touchstone: 'Go down to
the old cemetery; you'll see / there's nothing definitive to be said.' But good
poems even the few strong ones in Dunn's book do say something
definitive: a poem that does not have such a goal will rarely have any staying
power. The Swiss scholar and critic Peter von Matt has argued that the two
central 'intentions' of a poem are to be beautiful and to be immortal. In both cases, I
would add, the poem also wants to define to be 'definitive' about what
poetic beauty and poetic immortality are. This—to steal another phrase, this
time from the title of a recent essay by Mark Halliday [http://www.poems.com/essahall.htm]
is part and parcel of 'the arrogance of poetry'. Arrogant poems, poems that
want to be beautiful and immortal, challenge the lesson taught by Dunn's 'old
And so do a few of Dunn's poems. Here is 'Chokecherry':
fog, the morning almost invisible.
is a lizard. Chalcedony a stone.
refuge in nouns.
Gap. Burnt Cabins the names of towns.
Sweet William plants,
nightshade one that can kill.
and whippoorwill insist on themselves.
mockingbird indiscriminately collects.
a flower of a man.
tries hard to reduce a night's aftertaste,
is a gorgeous, bitter fruit.
fine-grained agate on the desk,
paperweight, once kept
company with slugs and worms.
named the birds with bad names
have wanted to make something clear.
There are so many wonderful things going on here: the play of the consonants in
'Deep Gap. Burnt Cabins'; the recurring hints of death in the last lines of
each tercet; their varied structures, with the shifting relationship between
(and sequence of) the concrete and abstract nouns in each one; the fabulous
bird names and those are just a few of the poem's highlights.
However, this is still a typical Dunn poem in some ways. He often describes
scenes that are blurred in some way, whether by fog or early morning or
distance or memory. Here, the blurriness does not permeate the poem itself.
'There's refuge in nouns' is a very typical Dunn line; in other poems, that
'refuge' would be the only type of noun around; all the concrete 'small things'
would be missing. Elsewhere, Dunn does not name the threats he seeks 'refuge'
from, either but he also does not present the refuge itself so clearly.
Finally, the poems are often no more specific about 'something' than in the
final line here, but this poem earns a moment of imprecision by moving around
it with such precision. What the poem wants to make clear might remain obscure,
but the poem itself is crystal clear, as well as 'definitive' about trauma,
about nature, about language, even about poetry.
One thing 'Chokecherry' does not say anything definitive about is narrative.
Unsurprisingly, that is an issue in the poem 'Story'. The first two stanzas set
up the situation: the speaker is 'out of town'; his wife is 'taking her
late-afternoon walk / on Chestnut where no sidewalk exists' (a lovely and
precise detail); and she is about to be attacked by a dog. Then:
going to happen that can't happen
a good story: out of nowhere a car
and kills the dog.
His wife cries; the woman driving the car cries; the dog's owner cries: 'Three
women / crying in the street, each for different reasons.' The core event of
'Story' sets up this 'simple and sad' image with economy and precision. This is
somebody's story: the women's story and the husband's. He finds himself 'in a
country of pure fact':
I listened to my wife's story on the phone
knew I'd take it from her, tell it
which way until it had an order
a deceptive period at the end. That's what
always do in the face of helplessness,
some arrangements if I can.
The only concrete image here is the phone call; the rest is reflection. But the
self-referentiality of the passage it does what it says it is doing gives
it substance that would otherwise be missing, and the substance has, as it
were, six legs to stand on, those of the three crying women. And it all sets up
the odd, serendipitous world.
I'd be inclined to think of
have stopped that dog.
the facts saved her.
'Just the facts, ma'am,' as they used to say on Dragnet, before the days of
the Miranda rights.
Reading Different Hours, I found myself yearning for somebody's story, for 'simple and
sad' poems made from 'what's lying around the house', for lists of 'many small
things / ... observed and thought', for 'tiny shadings' that revealed more than
just 'varieties of boredom', for something definitive. Dunn provides such
specificity in 'Chokecherry' and 'Story', as well as in 'The Same Cold' and
'Burying the Cat'. The latter handles a poetically tricky topic with aplomb and
a wonderfully self-incriminating conclusion, as the speaker waits for wife and
children after finishing his task: 'I remember that after their shock, their
grief, / I expected to be praised.' These poems precisely capture scenes and
generate emotions, rather than just gesturing at experiences and emotions that
could have happened in 'anybody's story'. These poems are not like the man at
the end of 'Backwaters':
looked seaward, forced myself back
into the bracing wind.
at the end of a crude jetty made of rocks
hooded man was staring into the monotony.
don't speak to a man like that.
give him all the room he needs.
That man has 'the right to remain silent', as the Miranda rights put it. But on
the whole, Dunn's poems are too 'hooded', too monotonous, too far out at the
end of their 'jetty', to let the reader experience the 'bracing wind' of the definitive.
Andrew Shields 2003