Friday, February 26, 2010



At The Washington Zoo the animals
testified, collectively,
to the zaniness of their creator,
who made even the great Henri Rousseau
seem little more than derivative.
Clearly, though, nobody was in control.

How can you take seriously a god
who'd put in the same universe
a rhinoceros, say, and a tapir?
Or, for that matter, a man and a woman?
Or, in the same room, a passel of poets?

Back at the Washington Hilton,
at The International Poetry Conference,
people duped from all over
were seeking prizes for work
the smallest monkey in the monkey house
exceeded by merely hanging from a branch.

Granted, some of the creatures
gathered at the Hilton wanted to know
something about creation. But others
were content to make sang rhyme
with orangutan, themselves with themselves.

I was their ape, just a bigger one of them,
a consenting ape, come to read
from a few of my ape books,
which I thought were theirs as well.
But I was preceding the Marvellettes
and they were impatient with me, and noisy.

I wanted to be back at the real zoo
where the keepers bathe the elephants
and get in the water with the sea lions.
What a fool I'd been to try to act
the good ape in a world like this.
I should have leapt on their tables,
ripped their shirts off,
given them something to think about.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Rottend Staal


HelloGoodbye (A Stephen Dunn Imitation)

-For Clayton David

I was walking
to my calculus class
when you were born,
no tiny heart thumping
in your chest, no air
inflating your lungs. Instead,
they drooped like Eeyore’s ears
too tired, too old
for your young body.

But I could breathe
just fine, inhale
exhale. Not fair.

All we wanted
for you was a shot at life, a chance
to teach you
about girls,

All we wanted
was you
to bring some sunshine to our cloudy lives,
make this winter warmer
with your smile.

Instead, it feels too cold today,
as your shoe box of a coffin
is lowered into a hole
you could have dug
had you been given
five more years
and a sandbox.

They want me to cover you
with a shovel full of dirt, to
say goodbye.
I never said hello, though,
and all I wanted
was to see you one time,
my cousin,
to see what color
your eyes were…
green like your mommy’s

or brown like mine?

Meg Lutz

Posted over on Poemhunter

The Soul's Agents

Painting by Gwendolyn Magee

The Soul’s Agents

Every night before bed, say for a week,
we recommend admitting a lie
or a deception, sotto voce, a rogue’s prayer
to the soul you know you have,
no matter how tattered or dormant.
Trust us, your secrets differentiate you
from no one, but the soul awakens
a little when it hears them.
We have its interests at heart,
which means your interests as well.

Try to practice unsettling
what remains settled in you—
those ideas, for example,
inherited, still untested.
And if only you could raise
your hypocrisy to the level of art,
like forgery, there might be
real hope for you.

Some people of course expect
to be rewarded for stumbling
and rising from the floor
and stumbling again, but we give
no credit for living. We favor vitality
over goodness, even over effort;
we love a great belly laugh
more than anything.

In your case we do worry
there may not be enough
quarrel in you, or enough courage
to acknowledge your worst inclinations.
Know that the soul converts them
into tenderness. Nothing pleases it more.

So next week why not admit
that what Raskolnikov did
has always made you dream?
The more you expose yourself
the more you become unrecognizable.
Remember, we are here to help.
What you decide to keep from the world,
tell us. We understand
everything. We pass it on.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on AGNI Online



When Peter Lorre, Casablanca’s pathetic,
good-hearted man,
said, “You despise me, don’t you?”
and Bogart replied,
“Well, if I gave you any thought, I might,”

I laughed, which the movie permitted.
It had all of us leaning Bogart’s way.

“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,”
Beckett has one of his characters say,
as if it might be best
to invent others to speak certain things
we’ve thought and kept to ourselves.

If any of us, real or fictional,
had said to someone,
“Nothing’s funnier than your unhappiness,”
we’d have entered another, colder realm,

like when news came that a famous writer
had died in an accident, and his rival said,
“I guess that proves God can read.”
Many of us around him laughed.
Then a dark, uneasy silence set in.

All day long, my former love,
I’ve been revising a poem about us.
First, a gentle man
spoke it, then I gave the Devil a chance.
But you always knew my someone else
could only be me.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Verse Daily

The Whiner's Progress

The Whiner's Progress

Snow was falling, the temperature too.
The universe stood still
as his wipers began to freeze, streaking
the windshield so he could hardly see.

Lucky that he needed to concentrate
on the road, or he might've called home,
said to his wife, "I'm okay,
don't worry," worrying her.

Yet he was so close to legitimacy —
a whine and a crisis
in alignment for once — his friends
would have smiled had they known.

The car ahead of him skidded, spun.
Suddenly there was no division
between road and field, snow and snow.
He thought no fair. He thought poor me.

But when he called for help, stuck,
his world a white blur, he spoke
as if he understood a different language
was called for: fact after clear fact,

not one misleading I. Neither friend
nor universe could've hoped for more —
a low whine suppressed, the hint
of a man beginning to hear himself.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Verse Daily

Ode To a Heart Loser

Ode to a Heart Loser

West need not lead hearts;
if south has a heart loser,
he can’t avoid it.
—Sheinwold on Bridge

You need not lead with your heart,
though if you do
best to know that a signal
can be a suggestion, not a command,
even sometimes a line of defense.

Bridge wisdom: important, but not
for lovers in first thrall, people
like you. You’ve stepped into a fire
you couldn’t avoid,
you’ve been the brave fool.
Never to have been a heart loser

means it’s strategy after strategy
all life long, never an exalted feeling
undone by circumstance or time.
Oh, most of us have played the game,
waited for the other to be the one

to tip her hand. So praise to you
who allowed your heart
to be enlarged and alive and in danger,
and, for all you might lose, put up
no defenses. Instead, a clear signal

to your beloved because suddenly
you needed to give everything away,
a gesture so obvious it confused
even her, who only had been anticipating
something calculated, if not brilliant.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Verse Daily

Losing Steps

Losing Steps

It's probably a Sunday morning
in a pickup game, and it's clear
you've begun to leave
fewer people behind.
Your fakes are as good as ever,
but when you move
you're like the Southern Pacific
the first time a car kept up with it,
your opponent at your hip,
with you all the way
to the rim. Five years earlier
he'd have been part of the air
that stayed behind you
in your ascendance.
On the sidelines they're saying,
He's lost a step

In a few more years
it's adult night in a gymnasium
streaked with the abrupt scuff marks
of high schoolers, and another step
leaves you like a wire
burned out in a radio.
You're playing defense,
someone jukes right, goes left,
and you're not fooled
but he's past you anyway,
dust in your eyes,
a few more points against you.

Suddenly you're fifty;
if you know anything about steps
you're playing chess
with an old, complicated friend.
But you're walking to a schoolyard
where kids are playing full-court,
telling yourself
the value of the experience, a worn down
basketball under your arm,
your legs hanging from your waist
like misplaced sloths in a country
known for its cheetahs and its sunsets

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The Writer's Almanac

The Poem Becoming A Poem

Painting by William Merritt Chase

One Summer: Musings about Avoidance,
Temperament, and the Poem Becoming a Poem

by Stephen Dunn

The Georgia Review, Winter 2005

There's something to be said for avoidance,
even besides its obvious virtue – not doing
what you're supposed to do. Last summer,
for example, I planned to write a memoir
about my grandmother's secret, which I had
only recently learned, and instead made
phone calls, lingered with my coffee, or
found myself writing something else. One
morning, turning away from my notes, I
wrote this line: "Night without you, and
the dog barking at the silence..." Next
morning: "Maybe genius is its own nourishment,
I wouldn't know." Both lines led to poems,
one a love poem, the other about Glenn Gould,
neither of which had anything to do with my
grandmother. Apparently I had tapped into
some rich vein of psychic refusal, a source
of energy that seemed transferable to
subjects not related to it. Of course I
needed to believe that I actually wanted
to write the memoir. When it was clear after
a while that I didn't, my avoidance-as-
compositional-method lost power. But I was
able to fool myself for several weeks. I
wrote more poems that summer, many of them
keepers, than I had during any comparable
time. It should come as no surprise that
"what if" and "let's see where this goes"
were far more seminal than
"here's what happened."

Avoidance suggests psychological fear,
something unresolved that tempts us while
declaring stay away. I was avoiding something,
but so what? As Fitzgerald has Gatsby say
about Daisy's marriage to Tom, "it was only
personal" – a strange disconnect that
nevertheless freed him to pursue the wildness
of his dream. Such suppression of reality
would come back to haunt Gatsby, but that's
another matter entirely. At the time, it
gave him permission to go forward. Whatever
my reason for resisting grandmother's secret,
it kept leading me elsewhere, if not forward.
And, that particular summer, elsewhere was
where the unexpected, the loose ended, the
half known, resided. Avoidance led me into
unforeseen areas, which is only to confirm
that poems originate in unlikely ways. Then
it helps that you've devoted your life to
developing and honing the skills that might
take you further.

Like opium or free writing, avoidance may get
you into a poem, but rarely out of one. After
all, it takes a lot of things-in-place just to
become a merely decent poet: a passion for and
a suspicion of language, for starters; empathy
for otherness; contempt for sham; comfort with
artifice; some balance between truth's cruelty
and irony's armor; a love both of exactitude
and ambiguity. If we're not beginning poets,
all of these qualities should be ingrained in
us before the poem begins. They must remain
the poem's informants – behind the poem, not
in it, unconsciously guiding its decisions.
Something galvanizes them if we're lucky.
That something could be anything – "a wild
horse taking a roll," as Marianne Moore
says, or an uprising in 1916, or something
utterly serendipitous, like the way language
in the act of finding companionable language
also finds meaning.

Of course, I don't think of any such things
when I compose. And I try to forget about my
heroes and their daunting qualities: Jeffers'
ferocity, the artful delicacy with which Larkin
distills and orchestrates his bile, Dickinson's
quirky incisiveness, Dante's perfectly imagined
hell, Shakespeare's capaciousness. Heroes can
become hindrances. They, too, need to be
unconscious, informing elements – assimilated,
ingrained, part of who you are.

Avoidance, indeed. Some things need to be
forgotten in order to proceed. One summer I
couldn't shake "That is no country for old men,"
kept hearing it in my head every time I sat
down to write. Yeats was too much with me.
I took a lot of naps.

Some therapists, for our own good, might
want us to confront what we tend to suppress.
When I'm writing, I'm happy to be the healing
profession's adversary. It may be true that our
lives are more important than our poems, but
not when we're working on one. Besides, no poet
wants to end up with a poem that is the equivalent
of learning how to cope. Poems need to be better
than acceptable, better, certainly, than their
authors. In the broadest sense, they should offer
the reader a good time, which, by my lights, can
include a sadness, or even the horrific,
wonderfully enacted. I never understand when
people say that a good poem about a depressing
matter depressed them. I'm a sucker for the world
as it is brought home anew, whatever it takes to
deliver it. Paul Celan's "Death Fugue" elates me.

Restraint, avoidance's mentally healthy cousin,
has, in many quarters, a good reputation. I
have been one of its practitioners. But there
must be something large that enlists our
restraint, else it be like building a corral
for a mouse. I will grant restraint its
virtues without listing them. We, the
congenitally restrained, though, can't be too
proud of ourselves for being so. Wouldn't we
rather be praised for what's lesser in our
natures – those times we've been excessive
or expansive? Don't we love to reach that
moment in a poem that makes us feel as
though we've just gotten back home, safely,
with stolen goods, all traces of how we got
there hidden? Aren't we most pleased when
our restraint serves some wildness?

Stevens said some poets prefer a hard rain
in Hartford to a drizzle in Venice, and
vice versa. He wasn't elevating one over
the other. He meant that, in varying degrees,
we're all unconscious servants of our
temperaments. Perhaps, but within a temperament
I have to believe there's room for a good deal
of variety. I like rock music, for example,
but not heavy metal. I love Hopkins' passionate
syntax, but I come to it with George Herbert's
metabolism. I'd like to own one of de Kooning's
"Woman" paintings and also Vermeer's "Girl
with a Pearl Earring." I suppose that my
temperament inclines me to spend a longer
time in front of the Vermeer; I love how
quietly it invites contemplation. But the
first time I saw one of the de Koonings my
response was entirely and excitingly visceral.
It disturbed, shocked. Now I find myself
smiling in their presence. Like a disastrous
love affair thought about years later, the
encounter has become comic. I've found
another way to live with it.

I suspect that I'm a drizzle person with a
hankering for a good storm, quick to put up
his umbrella. But would I prefer the drizzle
if it were in Hartford? In the Bronx? Isn't
context ready to confound almost anything we
feel sure of?

I've always been tempted to be what I'm not,
first out of a sense that I wasn't much of
anything, then out of a conviction that it was
possible to create oneself. I can think of a
few achievements I never achieved, lies I
eventually turned into facts out of sheer
embarrassment of being caught. (Don't ask me
to cite them.) I can also think of those
times I got caught. Certainly, though, as
writers, we can expand who we are by
entertaining or impersonating who we're not.
Witness any persona poem, all those women
reinventing Penelope to reinvent themselves,
all those contemporized Oedipuses discovering
how to see in the dark. And to write is to
reach into the dark. Occasionally we touch
something we didn't know we sought. Sometimes
we get bitten, or worse. Sometimes there's
nothing. We move forward, our imaginations as
feelers. We make things up to find what is
or isn't there.

Poetry writing is more humane than life.
It's full of second chances. Your sentence,
so to speak, can always be revised. You can
fix the inappropriate, adjust every
carelessness, improve what you felt. How
perfect for someone like me: unabashed
avoidance one afternoon, a little excess
in the evening, a few corrections in the
morning. The various ways I've embarrassed
myself, crumpled up, in the wastebasket,
never to be seen.

But there is of course the final product.
If you're ambitious for your work, there is
no hiding. The issue is not that I've revealed
aspects of my life (though I may have); rather,
it's my skill and sensibility, which, combined,
constitute style. And nothing is as personal
or as individuating as style. My final product
must be evidence that I've switched my
allegiance from content to handling of content,
that whatever intensity I've mustered has
become increasingly aesthetic. Or, rather,
there should be no evidence of this, just
the poem standing for itself, tinged with the
residue of a style, hopefully in some way
distinguishing, if not distinctive.

For the record, the grandmother memoir finally
got written, late that summer, as a poem. Much
of what I've been musing about here went into
the writing of it. In order to get started, I
needed to veer into it, take it and myself
by surprise. I'll not go through the many
drafts of this poem, the many tinkerings and
rearrangements, except to say I'd been thinking
about the Buddhist saying, "If you meet the
Buddha on the road, kill him," and began with
it, then discovered that it needed to be
withheld until later. Buddhism, in fact,
would play a minor role in the poem, yet it
was the beginning of some narrative latitudes
not available to me had I stayed strictly with
my subject. Purposefulness, that enemy of
invention, suddenly had a harder time getting
its way. I was free to let one perception lead
to another perception, the facts of the matter
now merely the cargo, not the engine. What was
at stake were ways to be true to my poem
while being true to my grandmother's secret,
and I confess my allegiance quickly tipped
to the poem, as I've indicated it should,
because only attention to the poem qua poem
makes its contents significant.
Writing poetry is about giving yourself
permission for what you've found yourself
to be doing. It follows, therefore, that it's
an act both promiscuous and self-regulating,
and that's how I like it. (Perhaps my avoidance
of the memoir form was that it wasn't
promiscuous enough.) My first wife used to say
I wanted two of everything. It was a
conservative estimate. But what I wanted and
what I ended up doing were often vastly
different, as they are in poems themselves –
matters of compromise and adjustment. Of
course I want to be who I am and many things
I'm not. Drizzle man wants to be thunder man,
and thunder man wants to conceal the
lightning that caused him. My wishes, however,
may not matter.

By early September, I'd reverted once again
to the exigencies of my temperament. I
remembered the pleasures of light rain and
muted colors. The lure of subtlety. A
measured response. Auden, Frost, Williams,
Donald Justice – my mentors, unbidden, were
tapping me on the shoulder. And, as ever,
there was Apollo insisting I clean up after
the fabulous party that had spilled into
the street. Might as well dance a Danse Russe
whenever I can, I concluded, might as well
bend a few birches.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Poetry Daily



I remember how it used to be
at noon, springtime, the city streets
full of office workers like myself
let loose from the cold
glass buildings on Park and Lex,
the dull swaddling of winter cast off,
almost everyone wanting
everyone else. It was amazing
how most of us contained ourselves,
bringing desire back up
to the office where it existed anyway,
quiet, like a good engine.
I'd linger a bit
with the receptionist,
knock on someone else's open door,
ease myself, by increments,
into the seriousness they paid me for.
Desire was everywhere those years,
so enormous it couldn't be reduced
one person at a time.
I don't remember when it was,
though closer to now than then,
I walked the streets desireless,
my eyes fixed on destination alone.
The beautiful person across from me
on the bus or train
looked like effort, work.
I translated her into pain.
For months I had the clarity
the cynical survive with,
their world so safely small.
Today, walking 57th toward 3rd,
it's all come back,
the interesting, the various,
the conjured life suggested by a glance.
I praise how the body heals itself.
I praise how, finally, it never learns.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Writer's Almanac

From the Tower At the Top of the Winding Stairs

Painting by Luca Oleastri

From the Tower At the Top of the Winding Stairs

It seemed that the mountains of Vermont
were hunchbacks ringing
their own silent bells, and above them
an opaque, cloudless sky a model of
how to remain calm while other parts
of you might be thunder and rain.
From the tower it didn't take long
to see the dangers in believing that
seeing was knowing - high flying birds
revealing our need for angels,
some wispy scud evidence of a past
I'd yet to resolve. Still, wasn't
the psychological real?
The tower itself had no opinion.
Men and women could be seen
planting tomatoes and rows of lettuce,
touching each other goodbye,
and from this height others
could be imagined creating
something wonderful out of motives
like envy, even spite, warding off,
as they felt it, melancholy's encroachment.
To ascend the tower was
to want not to come down.
There to the south -- because
I had begun to dream -
you could see congressmen suddenly
released from the prisons
of their partisanship, wrestling amiably
with the imperfections of human existence.
And, beyond, enemies dropping their guns,
asking for forgiveness.
Everything felt comic,
how else could it be bearable?
The tower itself was proof
I couldn't escape
when I escaped from the world.
Out of its side window
I could see a house on fire,
and in the distance
cows and goats dotting the hillside,
and dogs everywhere --
no matter their size,
either forlorn or frisky,
entirely dependent
on the good will of others.
Soon the night birds would be calling
other night birds,
the normal influx of eros
begin to mix with music
heard from below.
I'd feel it was time to come down,
to touch and be touched,
take part in a dailiness
for which I'd need words
like welter or maelstrom.
But for now if I looked hard
I could see the random
pine cone, the random leaf,
and if I closed your eyes
something like a pattern,
the semblance of an order.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Huffington Post

The Waiting

The Waiting

I waited for you calmly,
with infinite patience.
I waited for you hungrily,
just short of desperate.

When you came I knew that
desperate was unattractive.
I was calm, no one wants
the kind of calm I was.

It tried your patience,
it made you hungry for a man
who was hungry.
I am that man, I said,

but I said it calmly.
My body was an ache, a silence.
It could not affirm how long
it had waited for you.

It could not claw or insist
or extend its hands.
It was just a stupid body,
closed up and voracious.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Verse Daily

The Telling of Grandmother's Secret

Painting by William Merritt Chase

The Telling of Grandmothers Secret

Belle's story was that she came over from
Prince Edward Island to Boston when she
was sixteen to be a nurse's apprentice,
but that wasn't exactly true. She got pregnant,
had the child – oh it's a long story.
The truth is she was sent away in shame.
— Aunt Jessica, age 87

Trying to desire nothing, be content
with motion, I walked up
Gravel Hill Drive,
then back, the day after Jessica's call.
But I was clear proof that Zen
is just flirtation and avoidance
unless you sit very still,
do the necessary work.
My disquiet wouldn't be quieted.

Still, nice to know there was a religion
you could fail without worrying
about eternal damnation, a conundrum
troubling you instead of a precept.

Nice also to ramble toward your subject,
sensing nobody cares about it but you,
feeling those first narrative latitudes,
the narrowings as you go.
Already the secret
had visited my sleep,
sat down with me at breakfast,
rubbing the dark from its eyes.
What confidence it had. Imagine,
this suddenly unlocked thing
believing it was irresistible as is.

"I'm the only one left who knows,"
Jessica explained,
then couldn't stop herself.
With each call the secret grew larger,
and I'd carry it out into the vagaries
of late October — one morning a clear view
of Savage Mountain, the next a cold mist —
aware that every story needed atmosphere
in order to exist.

And then the surprise of atmosphere
in collusion with memory,
grandmother's silence coming back to me,
and her kindness, for the first time,
feeling like an achievement. There she was,
cooking our meals, running the house,
my ill mother barely able to assist.
And there was her secret, pressing in
on her and down, asking for release.

That she was impregnated by her teacher
at age fifteen, that the teacher
married her
and on the wedding night
disappeared forever,
that she gave the baby to a relative
to raise, that she'd been sent away —
not over — to America, where she
converted shame into silence,
married again, becoming a bigamist,
that her husband and daughter
and my brother and I never knew,

all this speaks to the awkwardness
of exposition
and of a concealment so gifted
it's impossible to know the degree
to which it also was tragic —
a life denied,
a child left behind.
As family secrets go,

nothing for the tabloids, no one
beaten senseless, or murdered in bed.
But for me things to walk off,
and toward,

about which two dogs from the house
atop Gravel Hill had something to say.
Protective of what they hardly understood,
they charged, barked — good dogs, really,
their tails giving them away, and I turned,
started back, the secret seeming
less and less mine, part landscape now,
part the words used in its behalf.

A man in a pickup drove by,
his two raised fingers signaling, what?
That unlikely comrades were possible
in this world? That we share a code?
But he'd come so suspiciously
out of the narrative blue.

If you meet the Buddha on the road,
kill him, Buddhists say, worried
about anyone bearing indispensable news.

Lucky for the man that he didn't stop,
I might have had to eliminate him.
Instead, something grandmotherly —
it must have been grandmotherly —
insisted I just let him be a man
making his way home.
Open a door for him,
said that something,
now close it
so he's safe within.

I descended the hill,
the dogs still yapping as if certain
they were the cause. Up ahead,
the sudden sun through the trees
had speckled my driveway,
and, at its end, where gravel gives way
to macadam, there was the circle

that allows things
to be dropped off at the front door.
It was all shadowy and clear,
and moving toward it I felt
the odd, muted pleasure that comes
when you realize you've only just begun
to know how you feel.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Poetry Daily



No word for it in English, that time
between midnight and dawn. Most of us
are asleep by then, outrunning leopards
on blue lawns, or avenging our daily lives.
But in South America many are awake.
I see them dancing in the madrugada
all madrugada long. Even those working

quietly in their rooms at 3 A.M.—
it pleases me to think—are doing so
in the madrugada. I love how life nags
and language responds.
But if I were to fly to Caracas or Lima
to live the word and to say it out loud,
no doubt it would start to rhyme

with grunts from bar fights
and the muffled cries of women
forced into cars, and in dim-lit rooms
the silence of money sliding
into someone’s hand. Madrugada,
I might say then, without pleasure,
its meaning so consonant with the world.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Beatrice

The Metaphysicians of South Jersey

The Metaphysicians of South Jersey

Because in large cities
the famous truths
already had been plumbed and debated,
the metaphysicians of South Jersey
lowered their gaze,
just tried to be themselves.
They’d gather at coffee shops in Vineland
and deserted shacks
deep in the Pine Barrens.
Nothing they came up with mattered
so they were free to be eclectic,
and as odd
as getting to the heart of things demanded.
They walked undisguised on the boardwalk.
At the Hamilton Mall they blended
with the bargain-hunters and the feckless.
Almost everything amazed them,
the last hour of a county fair,
blueberry fields covered with mist.
They sought the approximate weight
of sadness,
its measure and coloration.
But they liked
a good ball game too, well pitched,
lots of zeros on the scoreboard.
At night when they lay down,
exhausted and enthralled,
their spouses knew
it was too soon
to ask any hard questions.
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.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Nightsun #20

The Arm

The Arm

A doll's pink, broken-off arm
was floating in a pond
the man had come to with his dog.
The arm had no sad child nearby
to say it was hers, no parent to rescue it
with a stick or branch

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Poetry Trail

Because We Are Not Taken Seriously

Because We Are Not Taken Seriously

Some night I wish they'd knock,
on my door, the government men,
looking for the poem of simple truths
recited and whispered among the people.
And when all I give them is silence
and my children are exiled
to the mountains, my wife forced
to renounce me in public,
I'll be the American poet
whose loneliness, finally, is relevant,
whose slightest movement
ripples cross-country.

And when the revolution frees me,
its leaders wanting me to become
"Poet of the Revolution," I'll refuse
and keep a list of their terrible reprisals
and all the dark things I love
which they will abolish.
With the ghost of Mandelstam
on one shoulder, Lorca on the other,
I'll write the next poem, the one
that will ask only to be believed
once it's in the air, singing.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on New Jersey Poets



if you believe nothing
is always what's left
after a while, as I did,
If you believe you have this collection
of ungiven gifts, as I do (right here
behind the silence and the averted eyes)
If you believe an afternoon can collapse
into strange privacies-
how in your backyard, for example,
the shyness of flowers can be suddenly
overwhelming, and in the distance
the clear goddamn of thunder
personal, like a voice,
If you believe there's no correct response
to death, as I do; that even in grief
(where I've sat making plans)
there are small corners of joy
If your body sometimes is a light switch
in a house of insomniacs
If you can feel yourself straining
to be yourself every waking minute
If, as I am, you are almost smiling . . .

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on New Jersey Poets

Essay On the Personal

Essay on the Personal

Because finally the personal
is all that matters,
we spend years describing stones,
chairs, abandoned farmhouses--
until we're ready. Always
it's a matter of precision,
what it feels like
to kiss someone or to walk
out the door. How good it was
to practice on stones
which were things we could love
without weeping over. How good
someone else abandoned the farmhouse,
bankrupt and desperate.
Now we can bring a fine edge
to our parents. We can hold hurt
up to the sun for examination.
But just when we think we have it,
the personal goes the way of
belief. What seemed so deep
begins to seem naive, something
that could be trusted
because we hadn't read Plato
or held two contradictory ideas
or women in the same day.
Love, then, becomes an old movie.
Loss seems so common
it belongs to the air,
to breath itself, anyone's.
We're left with style, a particular
way of standing and saying,
the idiosyncratic look
at the frown which means nothing
until we say it does. Years later,
long after we believed it peculiar
to ourselves, we return to love.
We return to everything
strange, inchoate, like living
with someone, like living alone,
settling for the partial, the almost
satisfactory sense of it.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on New Jersey Poets

Burying the Cat

Painting by Constance Shields

“Burying The Cat”

For years I have known that to confess
is to say what one doesn’t feel. I hereby
confess I was not angry with that dog,
a shepherd, who had seen something foreign
on his property. I’d like to say I was feeling
a sadness so numb that I was a machine myself,
with bad cogs and faulty wiring. But
I’m telling this three years after the fact.
Nothing is quite what it was
after we’ve formed a clear picture of it.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Robert Peake

The Lost Thing

The Lost Thing

The truth is
it never belonged to anybody.
It's not a music box or a locket;
it doesn't bear our initials.
It has none of the tragic glamour
of a lost child, won't be found
on any front page. It's like
the river that confuses
search dogs, like the promise
on the far side of the ellipsis.
Look for it in the margins,
is the conventional wisdom.
Look for it as late afternoon light
drips below the horizon.
But it's not to be seen.
Nor does it have a heart
or give off any signal.
It's as if . . . is how some of us
keep trying to reach it.
Once, long ago, I felt sure
I was in its vicinity.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Commonline

Before the Sky Darkens

"the clown" by Israel Rubenstein

Before the Sky Darkens

Sunset's incipient storms,
the tableaus of melancholy--
maybe these are the Saturday night events
to take your best girl to.
At least then there might be moments
of vanishing beauty before the sky darkens,
and the expectation of happiness
would hardly exist and therefore
might be possible. More and more you learn
to live with the unacceptable.
You sense the ever-hidden God
retreating even farther,
terrified or embarrassed.
You might as well be a clown,
big silly clothes, no evidence of desire.
That's how you feel, say, on a Tuesday.
Then out of the daily wreckage
comes an invitation with your name on it,
or more likely that best girl of yours
offers you once again a small local kindness.
You open your windows to good air blowing in
from who knows where, which you gulp
and deeply inhale as if
you have a death sentence. You have.
All your life, it seems,
you've been appealing it.
Night sweats and useless stratagem reprieves.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Online News Hour

Zero Hour

Zen photo by Will Simpson

Zero Hour

It was the hour of simply nothing,
not a single desire in my western heart,
and no ancient system
of breathing and postures,
no big idea justifying what I felt.

There was even an absence of despair.

"Anything goes," I said to myself.
All the clocks were high. Above them,
hundreds of stars flickering if, if, if.
Everywhere in the universe, it seemed,
some next thing was gathering itself.

I started to feel something,
but it was nothing more than a moment
passing into another, or was it less
eloquent than that, purely muscular,
some meaningless twitch?

I'd let someone else make it rhyme.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on One City

The Stories

The Stories

I was unfaithful to you last week.
Though I tried to be true
to the beautiful vagaries
of our unauthorized love,
I told a stranger our story,
arranging and rearranging us
until we were orderly, reduced.
I didn’t want to sleep with this stranger.
I wanted, I think, to see her yield,
to sense her body’s musculature,
her history of sane resistance
become pliable, as yours had
twenty-two years ago.
I told her we met in parks
and rest stops along highways.
Once, deep in the woods,
a blanket over stones and dirt.
I said that you were, finally,
my failure of nerve,
made to the contours of my body,
so wrongly good for me
I had to give you up.
Listening to myself, it seemed
as if I were still inconsolable,
and I knew the seductiveness in that,
knew when she’d try to console me
I’d allow her the tiniest of victories.
I told her about Laguna, the ruins
we made of each other.
To be undone — I said I learned
that’s what I’d always wanted.
We were on a train from Boston
to New York, this stranger and I,
the compartment to ourselves.
I don’t have to point out to you
the erotics of such a space.
We’d been speaking of our marriages,
the odd triumphs of their durations.
“Once….,” I said, and my betrayal began,
and did not end.
She had a story, too.
Mine seemed to coax hers out.
There was this man she’d meet
every workday Thursday at noon.
For three years, every Thursday
except Thanksgiving. She couldn’t
bear it anymore, she said,
the lies, the coming home.
Ended, she said.
Happiest years of my life, she said.
At that moment (you understand)
we had to hug, but that’s all we did.
It hardly matters. We were in each other’s
sanctums, among the keepsakes,
we’d gone where most sex cannot go.
I could say that telling her our story
was a way of bringing you back to life,
and for a while it was, a memorial
made of memory and its words.
But here’s what I knew:
Watching her react, I was sure I’d tell
our story again, to others. I understood
how it could be taken to the bank,
and I feared I might not ever again
feel enough to know when to stop.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Po-i-tre

Sleeping With Others

deviant art by blackenn

Sleeping With Others

Because memory and its intrusive nostalgias
lie down with us,
it helps to say we love each other,

each declaration a small erasure, the past
for a while reduced to a trace,
the heart’s palimpsest to a murmur.

Still, our solitudes are so populated
that sometimes after sex
we know it’s best to be quiet -

time having instructed us in the art
of the unspoken,
of in the sufficient eloquence

of certain sighs. Regret shows up
sleeping with, but never between us.

Like joy it doesn’t stay long,
quickly tiring of the language
used in its name, wanting only itself.

We’ve made this bed. We’re old enough
to know sorrow may visit
now and then, and that the world slides in

at will – ugly, dark, confident it belongs.
Nothing to do but let it
touch us, allow it to hurt, and remind.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Po-i-tre

Little Essay On Communication

Little Essay On Communication

Safe to say that most men who want
to communicate,
who would use that word, are shameless

and their souls long ago have drifted
out of their bodies
to faraway, unpolluted air.

Such men no doubt have learned women
are starved
for communication, that it’s the new way

to get new women,
and admission of weakness
works best of all.
Even some smart women are fooled,

though the smartest know
that to communicate
is a form of withholding,
a commercial for intimacy while the heart

hides in its little pocket of words.
And women use the word too,
everyone who doesn’t have the gift

of communication uses it.
It’s like the abused
asking for love, never having known

what it feels like, not trusting it
if it lacks pain.
But let’s say that a good man
and a good woman,

with no motives other than desire
for greater closeness,
who’ve heard communication is the answer,

sign up for a course at the Y,
seek counseling,
set aside two hours in the week

for significant talk. What hope for them?
Should we tell them
very little, or none at all?

As little or none as there is for us,
who’ve cut
right to the heart, and still conceal,

who’ve loved many times well into the night
in good silence
and have awakened, strangely distant,

thinking thoughts no one should ever know?

I’d try to communicate what I love
about this poem, but anything I say will be
superfluous so I’m not going to bother.

Isn’t it gorgeous, though?

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Po-i-tre

Need To Be


I worship the sun.
I don’t worship a Sun God or the Son of God.
I don’t worship the works of mankind.
I live happily as part of the earth.
Where else are there lilac bushes?
Apricot blossoms may
or may not bring apricots.
Everything gets to know earthworms.
Let us, at least,
honor the miracles we live as.
Human beings have been drawing pictures
as long as they have been singing,
or whistling.
I worship the present moment.
The best language is sign language
or wildly beautiful clothes.
I do like the photovoltaic cell,
something powerful enough
to power a small vehicle for free.
The human race may or may not be smart.
We should go back to horse power.
Saddles and wagons, even go bareback.
We need to eat off cups & plates
made out of clay dug from our own backyards.
We should be living in one horse towns.
Horses should be fed from our gardens.
Theories don’t help.
The actual use of plants matters most.
We need chlorophyll
as much as any other hunk of biology.
Horses love grass,
their shit makes flowers bloom.
I worship watermelon sugar.
This planet is known as Water Ball.
We live briefly upon it
as we circle the sun.
I worship hydrogen & oxygen.
I worhsip every galaxy.
This planet doesn’t need saving,
it’s just our own home
we’ve screwed up royally.
Even Kings & Queens of Industry
shall perish.
For God’s sake, don’t use the word “Lord.”
Even frogs will have their revenge.
I worship common sense & kindness.
“Hoka Hey! It is a good day to die.”
I need to be as lovely as a pumpkin
or else.

J.B. Bryan

Posted over on Bobby Byrd

Mike's Room

Mike’s Room

Two months wasted at college brought
my brother back to work long hours
in the Fish Shack, filleting, dicing,
however you please. He covered the wood

paneling of the converted garage
with posters of the Guess Who, Mountain,
shelves lined with boxes of 8-tracks,
stacks of albums, piles of cassettes
threatening to topple. A wonderland

of baseball cards and 70s comic books.
He lay in his giant bed, listening to:
The Who: Live at Leeds
Cream: Live Volume 2
Jethro Tull: Original Masters
and dreamed of being a drummer, touring
Monterey, the Isle of Wight.

On long drives he quizzed me on FM music
until I learned Page and Blackmore,
Kay from Burdon.
“Listen,” he’d say, shushing me for a solo
and then dissecting it afterwards.
He devoured

Destroyer serials, quoted Mark Twain and Mel
Brooks, action movies and Shakespeare.
“Remember” he’d say: “No matter where you go,
there you are.”

C.L. Bledsoe

Posted over on Carcinogenic Poetry



Your body is a drug,
and now that I’ve had a taste,
I’m addicted to your warmth. Remember

when we used to share my twin bed, you
mashed into the wall, me, on your head,

snoring. I made piles of the books
I read each month and tried not to drop

out of the world. You shared
an apartment with a gospel singer

named Princess, made things to eat
I still can’t spell, and tried not to cough

when I stood under the oven vent to smoke.
You’ve never forgiven the fact
that I deleted

the first messages you sent me because
I didn’t know who you were. Now, I know:

you are warm, and you are quick.
I’m slow and wear socks to bed. But I did

your dishes, those first few times
I came to visit.
Remember that, if nothing else.

C.L. Bledsoe

Posted over on Carcinogenic Poetry

Tiger Face

Painting by Fred McMachan

Tiger Face

Because you can be what you’re not
for only so long,
one day the tiger cub raised by goats

wandered to the lake and saw himself.
It was astounding
to have a face like that, cat-handsome,

hornless, and we can imagine he stared
a long time, then sipped
and pivoted, bemused yet burdened now

with choice. The mother goat had nursed him.
The others had tolerated
his silly quickness and claws.

And because once you know who you are
you need not rush,
and good parents are a blessing

whoever they are, he went back to them,
rubbing up against
their bony shins, keeping his secret to himself.

but after a while the tiger who’d found
his true face
felt the disturbing hungers, those desires

to get low in the reeds, swish his tail
Because he was a cat he disappeared

without goodbyes, his goat-parents relieved
such a thing was gone.
And we can imagine how, alone and beyond

choice, he wholly became who he was—
that zebra or gazelle
stirring the great blood rush and odd calm

as he discovered, while moving, what needed
to be done.

Stephen Dunn

Post over on Read a Little Poetry

Thursday, February 25, 2010



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.
I’ll invent a secret scroll
lost by Egyptians
and reveal its contents: the directions
to your house, recipes for forgiveness.
History says that my ventricles
are stone alleys,
my heart itself a city with a terrorist
holed up in the mayor’s office.
I’m in the mood to punctuate
only with that maker of promises, the colon:
next, next, next, it says, God bless it.
As Garcia Lorca may have written:
some people forget to live
as if a great arsenic lobster
could fall on their heads at any moment.
My sixtieth birthday is tomorrow.
Come, play poker with me,
I want to be taken to the cleaners.
I’ve had it with all stingy-hearted
sons of bitches.
A heart is to be spent.
As for me, I’ll share
my mulcher with anyone who needs to mulch.
It’s time to give up search
for the invisible.
On the best of days there’s little more
than the faintest intimations.
The millenium, my dear,
is sure to disappoint us.
I think I’ll keep on describing things
to ensure that they really happened.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Read a Little Poetry

I Make Myself Up

Painting by Frank Frazetta

I Make Myself Up

From Stephen Dunn

The invented person, borrowed from the real–
abstracted, isolated–is the person we finally
know, or feel we know. I make myself up from
everything I am, or could be. For many years
I was more desire than fact. When I stop becoming,
that’s when I worry.

The invented person,
borrowed from the real–abstracted,
isolated–is the person we finally know,
or feel we know.
I make myself up from everything I am,
or could be.
For many years I was more desire than fact.
When I stop becoming,
that’s when I worry.

Posted over on Dig For Something Shiny

1. Stephen's prose poem.
2. Line breaks by Glenn Buttkus

Parable of the Fictionist

Parable of the Fictionist

He wanted to own his own past,
be able to manage it
more than it managed him.
He wanted all the unfair
advantages of the charmed.
He selected his childhood,
told only those stories
that mixed loneliness with
rebellion, a boy’s locked heart
with the wildness
allowed inside a playing field.
And after he invented himself
and those he wished to know him
knew him as he wished to be known,
he turned toward the world
with the world that was within him
and shapes resulted, versions,
In his leisure he invented women,
then spoke to them about
his inventions, the wish just
slightly ahead of the truth,
making it possible.
All around him he heard
the unforgivable stories
of the sincere, the boring,
and knew his way was righteous,
though in the evenings, alone
with the world he’d created,
he sometimes longed
for what he’d dare not alter,
or couldn’t, something immutable
or so lovely he might be changed
by it, nameless but with a name
he feared waits until you’re worthy,
then chooses you.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Versions

Dunn wrote "there are refuges that are just watering holes on the way to nowhere. The refuge of the habitual-the comfort of it, the stasis. The refuge of wishing to please-those little forays into hackdom that injure the soul. The refuge of the lie, how it buys time, lets you ride for a while in its big white car.

I tell my students the public wants excitement without danger, wants the artist to be considerate enough to stop before his bones show, to please not be so tacky as to disturb. I talk about the refuge of the neatly wrapped package. The refuge of the melodious. The refuge of entertainment and distraction that all of us except those artists who go all the way seem to need."



I’ve heard yogis talk of a divine
the body free of its base desires,

some coiled and luminous god
in all of us
waiting to be discovered…

And always I’ve pivoted

followed Blake’s road of excess
to the same source
and know how it feels to achieve

nothing, the nothing that exists
after accomplishment.
And I’ve known the emptiness

of nothing to say, no reason to move,
those mornings I’ve built
a little cocoon with the bedcovers

and lived in it, almost happily,
because what fools
the body more than warmth?

And more than once

I’ve shared an emptiness with someone
and learned
how generous I can be—here,

take this, take this…

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Poetaphobia

How To Be Happy: A Memo to Myself

How to Be Happy: Another Memo to Myself

You start with your own body
then move outward, but not too far.
Never try to please a city, for example.
Nor will the easy intimacy
in small towns ever satisfy that need
you have only whispered in the dark.
A woman is a beginning.
She need not be pretty, but must know
how to make her own ceilings
out of all that’s beautiful in her.
Together you must love to exchange
gifts in the night, and agree
on the superfluity of ribbons,
the fine violence of breaking out
of yourselves. No matter,
it’s doubtful she will be enough for you,
or you for her. You must have friends
of both sexes. When you get together
you must feel everyone has brought
his fierce privacy with him
and is ready to share it. Prepare
yourself though to keep something back;
there’s a center in you
you are simply a comedian
without. Beyond this, it’s advisable
to have a skill. Learn how to make something:
food, a shoe box, a good day.
Remember, finally, there are few pleasures
that aren’t as local as your fingertips.
Never go to Europe for a cathedral.
In large groups, create a corner
in the middle of the room.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Subway Philosophy



If on a summer afternoon
a man should find himself
in love with only one woman
in a sea of women,
all the others mere half-naked
swimmers and floaters,
and if that one woman
therefore is clad in radiance
while the mere others
are burdened by their bikinis,
then what does he do with a world
suddenly so small, the once unbiased sun
shining solely on her?
And if that afternoon turns dark,
fat clouds like critics dampening
the already wet sea, does the man run—
he normally would—for cover,
or does he dive deeper in,
get so wet he is beyond wetness
in all underworld utterly hers? And when
he comes up for air,
as he must,
when he dries off and dresses up,
as he must,
how will the pedestrian streets feel?
What will the street lamps illuminate?
How exactly will he hold her
so that everyone can see
she doesn’t belong to him,
and he won’t let go?

- Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Poems Potatoes



She wrote, “They were making love
up against a gymnasium wall,”
and another young woman in class,
serious enough to smile, said

“No, that’s fucking, they must
have been fucking,” to which many
agreed, pleased to have the proper fit
of word with act.

But an older woman, a wife, a mother,
famous in class for confusing grace
with decorum and carriage,
said the F-word would distract

the reader, sensationalize the poem.
“Why can’t what they were doing
just as easily be called making love?”
It was an intelligent complaint,

and the class proceeded to debate
what’s fucking, what’s making love,
and the importance of the context, tact,
the bon mot. I leaned toward those

who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject.
But then a young man said, now believing

he had permission, “What’s the difference,
you fuck ‘em and you call it making love;
you tell ‘em what they want to hear.”
The class jeered, and another man said

“You’re the kind of guy who gives fucking
a bad name,” and I remembered how fuck
gets dirty as it moves reptilian
out of certain minds, certain mouths.

The young woman whose poem it was,
small-boned and small-voiced,
said she had no objection to fucking,
but these people were making love, it was

her poem and she herself up against
that gymnasium wall, and it felt like love,
and the hell with all of us.
There was silence. The class turned

to me, their teacher, who they hoped
could clarify, perhaps ease things.
I told them I disliked the word fucking
in a poem, but that fucking

might be right in this instance, yet
I was unsure now, I couldn’t decide.
A tear formed and moved down
the poet’s cheek. I said I was sure

only of “gymnasium,” sure it was
the wrong choice, making the act seem
too public, more vulgar than she wished.
How about “boat house?” I asked.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Lisa Dalrymple

Walking the Marshland

Walking The Marshland

It was no place for the faithless,
so I felt a little odd
walking the marshland with my daughters,

Canada geese all around and the blue
herons just standing there;
safe, and the abundance of swans.

The girls liked saying the words,
gosling, egret, whooping crane, and they liked
when I agreed. The casinos were a few miles
to the east.

I liked saying craps and croupier
and sometimes I wanted to be lost
in those bright
windowless ruins. It was April,
the gnats and black flies
weren’t out yet.
The mosquitoes hadn’t risen
from their stagnant pools to trouble
paradise and to give us
the great right to complain.

I loved these girls. The world
beyond Brigantine
awaited their beauty and beauty
is what others want to own.
I’d keep that
to myself. The obvious
was so sufficient just then.

Sandpiper. Red-wing
Blackbird. “Yes,” I said.
But already we were near the end.
Praise refuge,
I thought. Praise whatever you can

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The Dragon's Mouth

Right, Now

Photograph by Chip Mitchell

right, now

The street violinist who played for me
in her evening dress
simultaneously lived with Bach
and the clang of my coins.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Bill Strickland

Those Of Us Who Think We Know

Those of Us Who Think We Know

Those of us who think we know
the same secrets
are silent together most of the time,
for us there is eloquence
in desire, and for a while
when in love and exhausted
it’s enough to nod like shy horses
and come together
in a quiet ceremony of tongues

it’s in disappointment we look for words
to convince us
the spaces between stars are nothing
to worry about,
it’s when those secrets burst
in that emptiness between our hearts
and the lumps in our throats.
And the words we find
are always insufficient, like love,
though they are often lovely
and all we have

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Misconception of the Oyster

Please Understand (A Bachelor's Valentine)

Please Understand (A Bachelor’s Valentine)

When, next day, I found one of your earrings,
slightly chipped, on the steps leading up to
but also away from my house,

I couldn’t decide if I should return it to you
or keep it for myself in this copper box.
Then I remembered there’s always another choice

and pushed it with my foot into the begonias.
If you’re the kind who desires fragile mementos
of these perilous journeys we take,

that’s where you’ll find it. But don’t knock
on my door. I’ll probably be sucking the pit
out of an apricot, or speaking long distance

to myself. Best we can hope for
on days like this is that the thunder
and dark clouds will veer elsewhere,
and the unsolicited sun will break through

just before it sets, a beautiful dullness to it.
Please understand. I’ve never been able to tell
what’s worth more—what I want or what I have.

- Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Sofie's Journey

The Room

The Room

The room has no choice.
Everything that’s spoken in it
it absorbs. And it must put up with

the bad flirt, the overly perfumed,
the many murderers of mood—
with whoever chooses to walk in.

If there’s a crowd, one person
is certain to be concealing a sadness,
another will have abandoned a dream,

at least one will be a special agent
for his own cause. And always
there’s a functionary,

somberly listing what he does.
The room plays no favorites.
Like its windows, it does nothing

but accommodate shades
of light and dark. After everyone leaves
(its entrance, of course, is an exit),

the room will need to be imagined
by someone, perhaps some me
walking away now, who comes alive

when most removed. He’ll know
from experience how deceptive
silence can be. This is when the walls

start to breathe as if reclaiming the air,
when the withheld spills forth,
when even the chairs start to talk.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The New Yorker


Painting by John Moriarty


It’s like this, the king marries
a commoner, and the populace cheers.
She doesn’t even know how to curtsy,
but he loves her manners in bed.
Why doesn’t the king do
what his father did,
the king’s mother wonders—
those peasant girls brought in
through that secret entrance,
that’s how a kingdom works best.
But marriage!
The king’s mother won’t come out
of her room, and a strange democracy
radiates throughout the land,
which causes widespread dreaming,
a general hopefulness. This is,
of course, how people get hurt,
how history gets its ziggy shape.
The king locks his wife in the tower
because she’s begun to ride
her horse far into the woods.
How unqueenly to come back
to the castle like that,
so sweaty and flushed. The only answer,
his mother decides, is stricter rules—
no whispering in the corridors,
no gaiety in the fields.
The king announces his wife
is very tired
and has decided to lie down,
and issues an edict
that all things yours
are once again his.
This is the kind of law
history loves, which contains
its own demise. The villagers conspire
for years, waiting for the right time,
which never arrives. There’s only
that one person, not exactly brave,
but too unhappy to be reasonable,
who crosses the moat, scales the walls.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The New Yorker

Don't Do That

Don’t Do That

It was bring-your-own
if you wanted anything hard,
so I brought Johnnie Walker Red
along with some resentment I’d held in
for a few weeks, which was not helped
by the sight of little nameless things
pierced with toothpicks on the tables,
or by talk that promised to be nothing
if not small. But I’d consented to come,
and I knew what part of the house
their animals would be sequestered,
whose company I loved.
What else can I say,
except that old retainer
of slights and wrongs,
that bad boy I hadn’t quite outgrown—
I’d brought him along, too. I was out
to cultivate a mood. My hosts greeted me,
but did not ask about my soul,
which was when
I was invited by Johnnie Walker Red
to find the right kind of glass, and pour.
I toasted the air.
I said hello to the wall,
then walked past a group of women
dressed to be seen, undressing them
one by one, and went up the stairs
to where the Rottweilers were,
Rosie and Tom,
and got down with them on all fours.
They licked the face I offered them,
and I proceeded to slick back my hair
with their saliva, and before long
I felt like a wild thing,
ready to mess up
the party, scarf the hors d’oeuvres.
But the dogs said, No, don’t do that,
calm down, after a while
they open the door and let you out,
they pet your head, and everything
you might have held against them is gone,
and you’re good friends again.
Stay, they said.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The New Yorker

If A Clown

If a Clown

If a clown came out of the woods,
a standard-looking clown with oversized
polka-dot clothes, floppy shoes,
a red, bulbous nose, and you saw him
on the edge of your property,
there’d be nothing funny about that,
would there? A bear might be preferable,
especially if black and berry-driven.
And if this clown began waving his hands
with those big white gloves
that clowns wear, and you realized
he wanted your attention, had something
apparently urgent to tell you,
would you pivot and run from him,
or stay put, as my friend did,
who seemed to understand here was a clown
who didn’t know where he was,
a clown without a context?
What could be sadder, my friend thought,
than a clown in need of a context?
If then the clown said to you
that he was on his way to a kid’s
birthday party, his car had broken down,
and he needed a ride, would you give
him one? Or would the connection
between the comic and the appalling,
as it pertained to clowns,
be suddenly so clear
that you’d be paralyzed by it?
And if you were the clown, and my friend
hesitated, as he did, would you make
a sad face, and with an enormous finger
wipe away an imaginary tear? How far
would you trust your art? I can tell you
it worked. Most of the guests had gone
when my friend and the clown drove up,
and the family was angry. But the clown
twisted a balloon into the shape of a bird
and gave it to the kid, who smiled,
let it rise to the ceiling.
If you were the kid,
the birthday boy, what from then on
would be your relationship
with disappointment? With joy?
Whom would you blame or extoll?

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The New Yorker

At the Smithville Methodist Church

At The Smithville Methodist Church

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts
for a week,
but when she came home
with the "Jesus Saves" button,
we knew what art was up,
what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends.
She liked the songs
they sang when they weren't
twisting and folding paper into dolls.
What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man,
and putting faith
in good men was what we had to do
to stay this side of cynicism,
that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week.
But when she came home
singing "Jesus loves me,
the Bible tells me so,"
it was time to talk.
Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you?
Could I tell her the Bible
is a great book certain people use
to make you feel bad?
We sent her back without a word.

It had been so long since we believed,
so long since we needed Jesus
as our nemesis and friend,
that we thought he was
sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him
like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us:
you can't teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories,
and we hadn't a story
nearly as good.
On parents' night there were
the Arts & Crafts all spread out

like appetizers. Then we
took our seats in the church
and the children sang a song
about the Ark,
and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to
jump up and down
for Jesus.
I can't remember ever feeling
so uncertain
about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can't say to your child
"Evolution loves you." The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries.
I didn't have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming.
All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.
There was nothing to do
but drive, ride it out, sing along
in silence.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Poetry Archive

ARS Poetica

Painting by Ken Januski


For a while I climbed the ladder,
not realizing I'd placed it
against the wrong house. The window
I tried to look into was a mirror.
I fell backward into the world.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on Commonline



My friends, the worriers,
make themselves miserable,
I suppose, in preparation
for the misery to come.
They must be practicing for the time
lightning will destroy their houses,
or for when their spouses die
on that famous fog-plagued strip of road.
Bird flu
and if their hotel room will be
too close to the ice machine
often begin to live side by side
in their minds.
They can’t help it, they say,
these servants of catastrophe,
often adding that I seem to suffer
from underworry,
which causes them to worry
for and about me the more.
And so, since worry always trumps
the absence of worry,
to live with them
is to live on their terms.
Don’t worry
I’ve learned not to say,
which is other-planetary language
to them, cold, unsympathetic,
the language of someone whole
wouldn’t help them build a bomb shelter
after they’d seen the end of the world
in a dream.
Try to be reasonable,
is the button that triggers the bomb.
I try to love them
for their other qualities,
like being right about most other things,
or how good they are in the kitchen
or the workplace or the bed.
But if not for my sake,
then for their own, shouldn’t
they worry less, or at least privately?
Every once in a while
shouldn’t they say,
Forgive me my worries?
But a semi is always running a stop sign,
one of the big hemlocks topples in a storm.
Then they point to the world news.
What’s wrong with you, they want to know.
Don’t you know what’s out there?
A failure of imagination, they say.
A man who’s a clear danger to himself.

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The American Poetry Review



Our children cannot save us
though someday we may find ourselves
in an unfamiliar sea
of sheets, calling their names.
Our children may reach down
but their arms will never be long enough,
they would surely miss us
even if they dove recklessly
into their futures, where we are,
in different orbits.

And we must not try to save them,
we must keep our wisdom to ourselves
when we are sinking, our mouths full
of desperate speech
and our children, above us,
in their beautiful
ignorant bodies

Stephen Dunn

Posted over on The American Poetry Review