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  ANYBODY'S STORY

Different Hours
, by Stephen Dunn, 121pp., £8.95 (paperback), Norton, Castle House, 75-76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

'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':

              Come breakfast, as always, the metaphysicians
              would begin to list the many small things
              they'd observed and thought, unable to stop talking
              about 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 cemetery'.

And so do a few of Dunn's poems. Here is 'Chokecherry':

              Early fog, the morning almost invisible.
              Skink is a lizard. Chalcedony a stone.
              There's refuge in nouns.

              Deep Gap. Burnt Cabins ­ the names of towns.
              Jack-in-the-pulpit. Sweet William ­ plants,
              and nightshade one that can kill.

              Bobwhite and whippoorwill insist on themselves.
              The mockingbird indiscriminately collects.
              Narcissist: a flower of a man.

              One tries hard to reduce a night's aftertaste,
              a querulous heart.
              Chokecherry is a gorgeous, bitter fruit.

              This fine-grained agate on the desk,
              this paperweight, once kept
              better company with slugs and worms.

              Whoever named the birds with bad names ­
              Cock-of-the-rock, shrike, sapsucker ­
              must 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:

              Something's going to happen that can't happen
              in a good story: out of nowhere a car
              comes 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':

              When I listened to my wife's story on the phone
              I knew I'd take it from her, tell it
              every which way until it had an order
              and a deceptive period at the end. That's what
              I always do in the face of helplessness,
              make 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 something 'definitive':

              Praise the odd, serendipitous world.
              Nothing I'd be inclined to think of
              would have stopped that dog.
              Only 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':

              I looked seaward, forced myself back
              out into the bracing wind.
              There at the end of a crude jetty made of rocks
              a hooded man was staring into the monotony.
              You don't speak to a man like that.
              You 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