The Unforgiving Cinderblock

Reviewed By

Dunn doesn’t do dazzle, though he duly honors those whose large, obsessive stars have burned brightly.

Born in 1939, Stephen Dunn is one of the more consistently satisfying poets of his generation. There is a stately bravery in the way he observes and experiences feeling, and What Goes On—Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009, is a welcome compilation, meaty and well crafted. He doesn’t always declare fresh news, as in his discussion of the virtues of restraint, a tool I believe gets less respect than it should. In ‘’Ars Poetica’’ his questioning and diction make the entire poem stirring, some stanzas especially so :

Yet what could awe us now?
The feeling dies
and then the word.

Restraint. Extravagance. I liked
how one could unshackle the other,
that they might become indivisible.

These lines help define what makes his poetry so rewarding. In his understanding of passion, structure and energy, he can bring to mind what a limber, dedicated ballet dancer does in the task of interpreting material and engaging an audience. “Five Roses in the Morning—March 16, 2003” would be too sweet by half without his self-control :

On the TV the showbiz of war,
so I turn it off
wishing I could turn it off,
and glance at the five white roses
in front of the mirror on the mantle,
looking like ten.
That they were purchased out of love
and are not bloody red
won’t change a goddamned thing—
goddamned things, it seems, multiplying
every day. Last night
the roses numbered six, but she chose
to wear one in her hair,
and she was more beautiful
because she believed she was.
It changed the night a little.
For us, I mean.

Let us now praise a poet who so gracefully realizes that the ordinary, the beautiful, and the dreadful meet well when treated with such finely calibrated attention, and with the utterly appropriate goddamns reminding us that poetry and roses help us cope with “the showbiz of war.” Dunn doesn’t do dazzle, though he duly honors those whose large, obsessive stars have burned brightly, as in “Poe in Margate:”

To come back and learn his alcoholism
was an illness—Poe had to laugh at that.
He knew the vanity of excuses better than anyone,
and how good self-destruction feels when one
is in the act of it. Still, he thought, you must be sober
to write your autobiography, set things straight.

He’d give up all notions of a kingdom by the sea,
to try to see things as they were and are.
But soon came the old, constant rebellion
of the senses and mind, soon he remembered
that truth was an enormous house shrouded in mist
with many secret vaults, and that perfect sobriety

is the state which you make the version of yourself
you like best, just another way to lie. He’d have
just one drink before dinner to ease in the night.

By the end of the poem, we’re back at the typically wise observation that the mad need the rational if art is to be born, and borne, if there is to be a “victory of precision over the loose ends/ of a troubled mind.”

Margate is a Jersey Shore town not far from Richard Stockton College, where Dunn is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing, and in this poem and others, Dunn lets places he has spent time in become fresh settings for old truths. “Henry James at Cape May ” is a concise assessment of James the novelist and James the man, putting to shame countless long-winded essays. He tidily sums up what has been detailed (‘’sit down at the wrong table, attempt to speak French”) by some misguided American :

But was he worrying now that someone who thought
and couldn’t stop thinking may never have loved?
And were we who watched him there watching us
so unfair, so spoiled to regret that one who gave us so
much had also not given us something else

These are important questions to ponder, particularly when Henry James is involved, but they also, naturally, apply to anyone wishing to lead a life that has room for sentiment (as opposed to the sentimental) and for eros, and even for foolishness held back from the brink by the possibility of regret. Again, a Dunn poem works as a kind of compressed, miniaturized “Guide for the Perplexed.”

In “The Mistaken,” he uses an event mundane to the point of trite, and elevates it keenly:

When a sparrow or grackle mistakes my window
for clear passage, often its neck is broken—
no chance for it ever to get smarter.
And the hawk pursuing it has less than a second
to understand that sometimes the world isn’t
what it seems; surely not enough time for wisdom.
Which is why I’m most pleased when they’re stunned
and lie there for awhile, then rise unsteadily,
stand dazed a while longer. They could be us,
or at least those of us with a tendency to mistake
the unforgiving cinderblock of one of our bad ideas
for a pillow. How lovely, though, when they become
themselves again and take to the trees,
as if eager to tell us what they’ve learned.

The piece could stop right here and be called perfection, thanks especially to that ‘’unforgiving cinderblock,” but it continues , doubling in size and doing minor damage by stretching a slimness past the breaking point.

“What Men Want,” is the last poem in the book, and probably the most recent. “After the power to chose/ a man wants the power to erase.” These are the final lines.

Clearly Dunn , now in his seventies, not only wants this, but wants the power to keep his well-earned art from being erased. For reasons that could fill volumes, or a Dunn poem at its best, technology has an increasing influence on the particulars of the survival of the written word. What Goes On deserves a permanent place in what ever form technology continues to deliver lines so thoughtfully gratifying, so well lit and finely formed .


Barbara Berman is the senior Rumpus Poetry reviewer. More from this author →