Lines of Defense, the newest book of poems from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn, demonstrates the staying power of his art. It is presented in four parts, but with a careful read seems to be comprised of three driving forces: tutorial, story and stunning stand-alone lines.
In “Tracks,” the element of story is expressed as telling and imagination married to the lines themselves. Elements of social commentary and supposition are evident here:
What’s one to do who has no money
and hatred of other people’s rules?
A leather jacket helped for some,
and for others a neckline that promised
a descent into a dreamland,
but did not solve the problems
of having parents too busy to care,
and a police force charged to serve
the strict quiescence of the status quo.
In “The Country of the Next Thing,” however, Dunn is suggestive and instructional when he writes:
This is when you invent the characters capable of dealing
with misfortune, or those destined to go wrong because
you haven’t given them imagination. Remember, all of them
And the lines that stand out with specific and individual power are dispersed throughout the book, a book that commands a slow reading for them not to be missed in addition to message buried in the story Stephen Dunn is telling or the lesson subtly being taught. “Intrusion” hits twice with these types of lines (or self-contained series of lines):
She wasn’t a prude.
She just liked to be wooed
before being pinned down, wanted her eyes
more than half open, didn’t want
to feel like some opening act.
though the DNA of those small, fuck-crazy-
had been civilized out of her…
These two lines connect with singular and connective power to create additional somethings occurring in a poem. This takes courage, calculation and is the mark of talent, perhaps even a casual talent unaware of itself after years of practice and application. And because Dunn is capable of seamlessly stitching much together at once, Lines of Defense as a collection holds together through the freedom given it to be its own diverse entity.
For example, there is an undeniable burst of energy and force spanning three poems physically central in the text. In “Archaeology,” the poem’s beginning could be studied on its own:
I tell you nothing new when I say
here we are again, unable to claim
many moments of relief
from the confirmable gloom, though
there was a time, before news became
ubiquitous, when it was possible
to close our eyes and hide in our rooms.
In “Another Argument With Jim About The Soul,” Dunn both confesses
Mine is a ravenous thing
when it’s awake.
and then pauses, mid-poem, to deliver one of many knockout blows:
I stop you there, and say
that saddens me because celestial lies
are my favorite lies, but what does that
have to do with soul? Rather than being
miraculous or grand, my soul
is more like a night janitor
nodding off on the job, unaware he’s
waiting to be made alert by dawn.
“Their Loneliness,” which follows the former two, is my favorite piece of the collection. To report much on it beyond admitting this is to remove from it what should be experienced newly by the reader on his or her own.
More goes on in this book as well. I read “Feathers” twice before I established that not only is it a fine poem, but it is a solid example of how Stephen Dunn welcomes the reader into his imagination which seems grounded in possibility and history as it may or not be happening, all depending on how the poem is approached.
For years now you’d heard rumors
of homeless gods in the vast emptiness.
And if they’d appear in your dreams,
as they sometimes did,
begging to be believed in once again,
you’d feel this icy refusal hardening in you.
And when you woke you’d feel it, too.
And while sometimes this welcoming doesn’t always connect so simply, as in “The Party To Which You Are Not Invited,”
When you speak, women move away.
You smile, and men see tombstones.
You extend your hand to the host
who won’t take it, reminds you
you were not invited, never will be.
it is completely acceptable that some poems are better left to chance and not offered with so much precision that there is little room for analysis.
The success of Lines of Defense, then, comes from two things: first, it manages to be all of what is described above, but with opportunity to be received and perceived as much more. There is open space for interpretation, revisiting, new meanings and hidden suggestions. The importance of his controlled variety in these poems is thusly commended. He manages to perform his tasks as Poet without strictly adhering to theme in subject or style, though there does exist a cohesive similarity throughout. Second, Stephen Dunn is quite invitational here in that one certainly feels included in these poems. In a fast world this book represents the triumph of slowing way, way down so as not to miss seeing, or sharing, a thing.