blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Sisyphus and Other Artifices:
A Review of Stephen Dunn's Local Visitations (W.W. Norton, 2003)

The first Stephen Dunn poem I can remember loving was a piece I came across in The Georgia Review in the spring of 1985. "He/She" was a miniature course in gender differences as well as a meditation in the form of a muffled drama. Twelve stanzas of tercets summed up in their thirty-six short lines what I've heard called "couple communication problems," and summed them up with a wisdom I doubt John Gray's 1992 Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus mustered in its entire 286 pages. And, more importantly to me as a writer, "He/She" was one of a handful of poems I encountered in the Eighties that convinced me that a poem could dispense with vivid imagery and still be very, very good, that sensory detail is far less important than proportion, rhythm, intelligence.

Given its subject matter and the immediacy of its present-tense verbs, "He/She" seemed daring because it was general, at times even abstract. Where another poet would have given us at least a phrase or two of directly quoted dialogue, Dunn gave us, "[S]he argues beyond winning, / screams indictments / after the final indictment // has skewered him into silence, / if not agreement." Show, don't tell? Well, Dunn wrote about the lessons women typically learn but that "men learn // too late or not at all: you took in, / cared for, without keeping score / you shaped a living space // into a kind of seriousness." In "He/She" I was impressed with the risk run and the artistic success so obviously and seemingly effortlessly achieved. Ever since Ezra Pound's "A Retrospect," we all knew what words to go in fear of, and by 1985 many poets had extended Pound's warning to include the general as well as the abstract. We ignored the concrete, the precise image at our peril.

Of course, merely to ignore is not the same as to dare. The word peril is related etymologically to the words experience, experiment, expert, empiric, and even pirate, and the best poets are piratical, always taking risks for gold. A true poet necessarily defies limits through experiment, tries this and that just to see what works, courts the danger of failure in order to gain linguistic experience and artistic expertise. Frost's "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader" partly implies that if the writer's not experimenting he or she is not really writing.

"He/She," perfect of its kind, was unrevised as late as 1994 when it appeared in Dunn's New and Selected Poems, a volume that collected work from eight previous books, from Looking for Holes in the Ceiling (1974) through Landscape at the End of the Century (1991). Since that New and Selected, Stephen Dunn has given us three fine books of verse, books that expand his subject matter and extend his stylistic range. In 1996 there were the thirty-eight pieces of Loosestrife, including the longish title poem. In 2000 fifty-one pieces formed the Pulitzer-winning Different Hours. And now we have the forty-four pieces of Local Visitations. That's 133 poems gathered into books since the Selected. Of the three volumes, only the most recent feels obviously padded out. Local Visitations's concluding section, the title section, breaks new ground, but it often seems, well, a bit like a mere exercise.

"Padded out" is of course a relative term. What feels like padding in a Dunn book would be inestimable treasures in others.

When we think of all the blunt blundering, all the inept evasiveness that constitutes thinking in our public and private discourse in twenty-first century America, how wonderful it is to have poems like Stephen Dunn's delicate, measured examinations and fittings-together, the work of a jeweler or a watchmaker. Or a neurosurgeon.

In Local Visitations, "The Unsaid," placed about midway in the volume, reminds us of "He/She." It begins, "One night they both needed different things / of a similar kind; she, solace; he, to be consoled." Like the earlier poem, it dramatizes love's frustrations, failures, poignant insufficiencies. What's new in the poem, though, is the ironic Freudian tease seen elsewhere in Local Visitations but which seems slightly out of place here: "In the bedroom they undressed and dressed / and got into bed. The silence was what fills / a tunnel after a locomotive passes through." In that last line, the poet doesn't exactly wink at the reader, but the maker unmistakably intrudes, smiles, it seems to me, ever so slightly.


Dunn's poems stand alone as individual works of art. But together, in groups and sequences, they suggest more intricate patterns and concerns, more comprehensive and complex themes. After its prefatory first poem, Local Visitations is divided into three major sections, "Sisyphus and Other Poems," "Here," and "Local Visitations." The very first part of the book is, I think, by far the most interesting, significant, and successful.

From the beginning, Local Visitations foregrounds Dunn's increasing tendency to emphasize the artifice in the art. The book opens with "A Bowl of Fruit," a poem which presents this epigraph attributed to Professor Jeanne-Andrée Nelson: "For me, the pleasure of poetry is taking it apart." Dunn's poem responds to the wrongheaded notion of reading that such a quotation implies. "A Bowl of Fruit" begins by addressing Nelson and also referring directly to itself: "Jeanne, I have spent days arranging / this bowl of fruit, all for you, / knowing how much you like fruit / (not to eat but to examine)." As we might expect from Dunn, "A Bowl of Fruit" is a good-natured attack, a moderate chiding, really, which in fact modulates from friendly lampoon to "seduction." Wordsworth's "The Tables Turned" ("We murder to dissect," the great Romantic had fairly hissed) seems downright violent next to Dunn's amused, crafty correction. Dunn merely causes his "still life [to break] open / into life, the discovery that the secret worm [in the apple], / if real, will not permit you any distance." The gentle mischievousness, the light touch with allusions (the book of Genesis, Blake's "The Sick Rose"), the generous restraint displayed toward his chosen antagonist, the easy, unapologetic employment of the familiar if not the cliché (the apple and its worm)—these are recognizable Dunn qualities. However, the Brechtian, or if you prefer, postmodern, flouting of literary illusionism is new in Dunn, or at least new in its level of up-front audacity. Through it, Dunn continues to insist on the artist's necessary paradox: Only by embracing art can we truly embrace life (and vice versa, of course). The Freudian playfulness of the phallic worm is natural here, since the speaker is in fact the poet.

But is it really the poet? Maybe it is The Poet. After "A Bowl of Fruit," itself a kind of epigraph, we enter the book's most carefully sequenced section, the first part of "Sisyphus and Other Poems." The section's title is redolent of older generations of verse, and in context it's a title that encourages us to view what's to come in the light of the artificer of "A Bowl of Fruit." Sisyphus, we recognize right away, is a flat-out fiction and perhaps a shop-worn one. And then there will be "Other Poems"—poems, art, the reader is encouraged to notice, not unmediated life.

"Circular," the first of the section's fourteen poems, evokes the great mysteries of existence and knowledge, suggesting philosophical and spiritual depths prepared for but unplumbed in "A Bowl of Fruit." In "Circular," the cycles of day and night yield finally the "unknowable." Like the daylight in lines one and nineteen, the poem both "illuminate[s]" and "conceal[s]" the world, the truth. The poem's title refers us to the cycles of time but also and primarily to its central logical loop: "A belief in happiness bred / despair, though despair could be assuaged / by belief, which required faith, / which made those who had it / one-eyed amid the beautiful contraries." Binocular vision is an obvious and excellent metaphor for some enduring Dunn premises: ambivalence is emotional clarity, inner conflict is psychic integrity, logical contradiction is a kind of rational balance. Two simultaneously held points of view create truth-in-depth, a 3-D reality. Dunn has always found strong conviction to be suspect, dogma to be dangerous. The poet-creator of the previous "A Bowl of Fruit" dramatized himself as the poem's god. Now, the creator seems more like the Creator—until "Circular"'s conclusion. The rich, authoritative voice sweeps across a generalized landscape peopled by generalized figures, its godlike statements finally seeming more contemplative than assertive. "Circular" ends with the syntactical irony of a single, strong sentence standing alone as a line, a mockery of the certainty Dunn sees robbing so many of us of the fullness of our humanity. That last line is simultaneously a declaration of confident objectivity and of radical subjectivity: "How we saw it was how it was." One is reminded of the epistemological paradoxes of Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man," a poem of similar generality and conceptualization and of similarly overt yet less ironic authorial philosophizing. An important difference too is that Dunn's poem is populated with more characters than Stevens's single perceiving subject and his emblematic object, and Dunn thereby registers his usual complaint against the superficially positive (those who believe unreflectively "in happiness") and the cognitively narrowed faithful (the "one-eyed").

In the next poem, "Sisyphus's Acceptance," the poet says in effect, Here, I now put on an old-fashioned mask. The unpromising choice of Sisyphus turns out to be a canny one for the ex-Christian Dunn, and he employs it, I think, perfectly for his purposes in this book. The ancient Greeks had no real concept of sin, and Sisyphus, one of very few mythological figures punished in their afterlife, was guilty, it would seem, only of defying the capricious, often unjust gods. Dunn's Sisyphus smiles "the way a gambler smiles," and this poet's ideal reader will know that Dunn has written an outstanding memoir about his love of gambling ("Gambling: Remembrances and Assertions" in Walking Light: Memoirs and Essays on Poetry). Dunn ever-so-slightly teases his best readers with autobiography, further confounding and interrogating the differences between art and life. The poem is third person, but its access to Sisyphus's consciousness and Sisyphus's own ability to sense the gods' reactions clearly suggest that "he," Sisyphus, is in fact not just a character but the mind of the poem. Any gaps between Sisyphus's knowledge and that of the poem or poet are mere poetic convenience. Only Sisyphus can see his rock, which he pushes "past the aromas of bright flowers, / through the bustling streets / into plenitude and vacuity." This rock is more a ball and chain to be dragged horizontally through the egalitarian twenty-first century than an ancient futility made heroic by its archetypal verticality. Stopping "for a newspaper / at one of those coin-operated stalls, / he looked like anyone else / on his way to work."

Sisyphus considers then rejects suicide. When he chooses to go on living, he senses he's won a small victory. In the poem's final line, Sisyphus feels "more on his own than ever now." And he is. In a later poem Sisyphus—that loose-fitting mask, that figure only sketchily portrayed by the poet in the way a Brechtian actor might present but not become the character—in a later poem, as I say, Sisyphus will realize what the reader and poet already realize: the gods are only in his mind. In a world bereft of real gods, as Stevens says in "Sunday Morning" (a poem Dunn deeply admires), we are "unsponsored" by the supernatural. But—therefore—we are "free."

The Sisyphus poems, although literally only five in number, manage to dominate Dunn's book. These poems are spaced evenly through the volume's first section and exert a kind of gravitational pull on most of the other poems in the volume.

Despite the somewhat theatrical trappings—actually, I think, because of these trappings—Dunn is particularly convincing about "this punishment that passed for life." Readers clenched against the heart-thrusts of so-called confessional art—and I confess to being one of them—are disarmed by Dunn's unconcealed fictionalizing, his aesthetic distancing. "Sisyphus's Acceptance" may well be the first Dunn poem in his oeuvre to touch the live nerve of nihilism.

Albert Camus’s famous treatment of Sisyphus transforms the puzzling figure of ancient myth into an existentialist hero. Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus concludes with the famous notion that we "must imagine Sisyphus happy." It’s true that loss and imperfection typically make Dunn's protagonists feel better by making them feel more authentic, more alive. But in Local Visitations Dunn seems to have challenged his previous assumptions and responses, seems to be putting them to the test. Utter hopelessness, real despair is in fact humiliatingly unheroic, despite Camus’s rousing interpretation of our "absurd" condition. And here it is, in Local Visitations, the undeniable suffering of genuine depression. The misery here is ontologically negative, essentially loss of pleasure, loss of feeling rather than active pain, depression's affective deadening rather than its more spectacular agonized manifestation.

I sense a breakthrough in Local Visitations. Dunn's most important new achievement may well be the rejecting of Camus's (and thus his own) subtle romanticizing.

The very next poem, "Flying Low," seems intentionally to confirm the reader's suspicions of a depressed Stephen Dunn. The poem is dedicated "for Jim Hollins" who is referred to directly in the poem: "At the bottom of depression, says one James Hollis, / is some meaningful task waiting to be found." And the poem adopts a first person point of view, as if the poet were publicly taking off his Sisyphus mask.

There are the usual felicities, the delightful verb ("Maybe I should butler someone other than myself / for a change"), the occasional vivid sensory detail ("the tea-colored cranberry bogs"). But, as in so many fine Dunn poems, the central tropes and the images of this remarkable poem are in themselves unremarkable. Here, although the speaker is "flying" (apparently, going about his daily affairs), he is flying low, in the "old numinous beauty of fog." This is a man functioning, but only barely, living but not savoring his life, and suffering as only the depressed can suffer: "For weeks now, black wings, black wings."

Those black wings have appeared elsewhere in Dunn's writing. Or one of them has. In his essay "Poets, Poetry, and the Spiritual," Dunn quoted a Stanley Kunitz/Max Hayward translation of an Akhmatova poem that begins this way:

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why not then despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

Introducing the above poem Dunn wrote, "[W]hen we discuss some poets' work, biography seems to matter, or at least should not be ignored. Anna Akhmatova is such a poet." Local Visitations, I would argue, not only examines depression and despair more intensely than other Dunn books, it also presents a Stephen Dunn examining the application of this statement about biography to his own work. And it further interrogates the archetypal logic embodied in Akhmatova' poem—and in nearly all of Wallace Stevens's. Just as "Death is the mother of beauty" (Stevens), beauty helps us keep death at bay for a sweet while.

Akhmatova's second stanza above is an answer to the question at the end of her first: the beauties and pleasures of the physical world keep us from despair. To despair is to deny the world's undeniable beauties, to find no pleasure in this life's inescapable pleasures. Dunn's characteristic speakers long ago lost their belief in sin. And Dunn's Sisyphus has not sinned any more than has the pagan Greeks' or Camus's. Dunn's Sisyphus has simply, inexplicably, lost his love of the beauties of life, this life, the only life there is. He is physically alive but he is emotionally dead.

Yet if there's one thing Dunn seems to find more distasteful than becoming one-eyed among the beautiful contraries, it's whining about one's own suffering. Thus, as I have said, he employs the distancing device of obvious artifice, in the present case Sisyphus. In Brechtian terms, he is engaged in creating the alienation effect.

Dunn has shown more admiration for Ted Hughes's grimly humorous Crow than for, say, Sylvia Plath's earnestly horrific Ariel. This seems partly because of the fact that Hughes tricks out the personal in what might almost be called the clap-trap mythic. Hughes's and Dunn's exploitations of myth are different from T.S. Eliot's publicly formulated version of the "mythological method," in which a writer gives structure and significance to the chaotic meaninglessness of "the modern world." The Hughes-Dunn method is more like Eliot's private use of invention and myth, Eliot's real use: to disguise and distance, and thus aesthetisize and perhaps dignify, his own suffering. This masking and mythologizing is not to be confused with bad-faith deception. It's a form of good manners, especially when the reader is encouraged to see easily through the fiction.

Stephen Dunn understands perfectly that one's suffering is not inherently interesting. But he also understands that when an artist is suffering, suffering is necessarily his subject. And Dunn flinches as much from the extravagant as he does from the self-pitying. It is no accident that his Walking Light makes no mention at all of brilliant, hysterical Sylvia Plath or her dazzling, deeply disturbing work.

Calvin Bedient called Ted Hughes "our first [i.e., premier] poet of the will to live." Dunn admires this about the man who lost Plath and then his second wife to suicide and who no doubt must have faced and conquered this temptation himself. Although his Sisyphus merely gestures toward his classical origins, Dunn surely knows that, like Hughes's Crow, in myth and legend Sisyphus is often a trickster and a rogue. Still, although his fellow-feeling with Hughes and Stevens—both of whom like Dunn rejected Christian upbringings—is strong, Dunn can't bring himself to believe in either Hughes's celebratory animalism or Stevens's Supreme Fiction. The philosophically less ambitious Dunn accepts the diminished and probably meaningless spectacle that is our world, accepts it with a somewhat Frostian shrug, and seems to see Hughes's and Stevens's most theoretical solutions and compensations as strenuous forms of wishful thinking.

So what keeps a Dunn protagonist going? Empathy and the sensory world and the feeling of freedom therein. Dunn celebrates ordinary kindness, ordinary decency, and ordinary physical pleasures. He is, in some ways, an unmystical Whitman, a celebrator of the mundane.

In Local Visitations "Flying Low" is followed by "The Others," a witty poem that both plays with the referential promiscuousness of the word "other(s)" and expresses quite poignantly if humorously the terrible sense of alienation that could, the context suggests, result from depression. The speaker is a "you" who turns out to be a kind of thwarted Whitman, determinedly voyeuristic as always, yet now shut out of the world's intimacies.

"Sisyphus and the Sudden Lightness" has the poet/Poet put back on his threadbare, incongruously archaic mask and assert his existentialist credentials: "It was then that Sisyphus realized / the gods must be gone, that his wings [i.e., his feeling of lightness] / were nothing more than a perception / of their absence." Then ironically, even comically, at the end of the poem the unnamed terror of emptiness and purposelessness seizes Sisyphus. It's as if Crow somehow found himself in the last line of Frost's sonnet "Design."

And in the next poem, entitled "From Nowhere," the poet/Poet, has stopped flying so low and has begun to soar. If we are reading this book in its presented sequence, we cannot have forgotten its first poem, "A Bowl of Fruit," in which the creator conjured before our eyes fruit that is and is not utterly artificial. The energy of "From Nowhere" returns us to the healthy energy of the joyful maker. The exuberantly unpunctuated "From Nowhere" moves us from the Sisyphus myth of the previous poem to evolutionary science. This is a list poem, cleverly structured to feel both inevitable and arbitrary. The poet/Poet has regained his élan, can celebrate almost Whitman-style with a cascading catalogue, his tour de force lightened at key moments with a charming, self-deprecating humor: "came the tulip and the Dutch, / the order of which I'm not sure" ; "Came the bat before radar / came the spider, came the loom / Came the hat and the hatrack / the mastodon and the spoon, / the order, I'm afraid, / once again wrong." And so on.

The time theme moves into the title of the next poem, "The Other Side of Time," and contemplates the pre-existence of those creatures, some of them, seen entering existence in the previous poem. When Wordsworth did this sort of thing, the ontological status of his "Ode" children was a spiritual certainty. But Dunn writes about the absent in order to write about the present, the other world in order to write about this one, in much the same way Emily Dickinson sometimes has her dead speak not to assert the afterlife but to emphasize paradoxically, spookily, the pure deadness of the dead. This Dunn poem is uncharacteristically assertive, its air of certainty oddly emphasizing its fabulist nature, the fictional condition of its unborn characters. The unborn are "never troubled"; but "Desire will soon torque and uncalm."

"Sisyphus Among Cold Dark Matter" puts the mask back on and we see that Sisyphus has not licked his depression yet. In a materialist version of, say, Whitman's "the unseen is proved by the seen," the poem presents its controlling metaphor in a scientific epigraph: "Cold dark matter betrays its presence only by the gravitational pull it exerts on the shapes and movements of galaxies." The cold and the dark and the merely material pull on insignificant Sisyphus who "knew he was no galaxy, no matter / what dark pull he felt, or the size of his needs." Dunn, a powerfully, movingly empathetic poet gives us a compelling image of isolation, one that lodges finally not in Hades but in Faye's, a restaurant or cafe. As William Harmon has pointed out, Poe began his most critically acclaimed poem ("To Helen") with the word "Helen" and concluded it with the word "Holy-Land," thus transforming, through sequentially repeated consonants, a woman into sacred geography. In Dunn's "Sisyphus Among Cold Dark Matter" Dunn transforms a man into the ultimate chamber of pain by beginning the poem with "He" and concluding it with "hell," the last word magnified by an uncharacteristic Dunn end-rhyme: "He tipped her well, / wondering if anyone could more than glimpse another's hell." In the world of Dunn understatement and linguistic restraint, this is an especially explosive conclusion.

The rest of the book appears to be less meaningfully sequenced, its groupings and juxtapositions less interesting to track. The remaining poems in the first section are memorable: "Knowledge" (which ends "God knows nothing we don't know. / We gave him every word he ever said"), "Angels in the Rafters" (which sums up Dunn's world as the place where we're "faced / with how to reconcile the insistence of laundry / and the need to pay bills / with the fragility of our yearnings/ how to love each another amid the encroachments"), "Sisyphus at Rest" (which presents Sisyphus as what we knew all along he was, a writer: "How boring sorrows are," he jots on one scrap of paper), the haunting "The Crossing" (a dream vision as much about writing as about emotional rebirth: ". . . the captain said, Self-consciousness / is your life raft, you must leave it behind"), the witty, unsettling, mysterious not-quite-allegory, not-quite-satire "Animals of America" (which ends, "'They are savages,' one reported, / 'let no one be fooled by their capacity for loving.'")

The "Sisyphus and Other Poems" section ends with "Sisyphus in the Suburbs." Sisyphus is recovering his love of life and we find ourselves back in the recognizable world of Stephen Dunn poems: CDs of Janis Joplin and Brahms, a cat to stroke, wine to sip, the slightly pleasurable ache of loss of faith, awareness of the past, the life-stirring anticipation of "the next good thing" as Dunn named it in "Optimism" in his previous book. Sisyphus no longer feels suicidal urges. He is alone, but he plans to go tomorrow to "the spireless mall," to search for "a gift." (See "The Death of God" in Different Hours: "The void grew and was fabulously filled. / Vast stadiums and elaborate malls— / the new cathedrals . . . .") "Sisyphus in the Suburbs," like its section, its entire book, is about loss and recovery. But mainly recovery. The gods are still dead. But Sisyphus enjoys the freedom and the surface details of the present and looks forward to the future, "as if some right thing / were findable and might be bestowed."

The poet Stephen Dunn—or Stephen Dunn's Poet—tends to love the world with the genuine Epicurean's self-control, the sensual fatalist's easy acceptance. The Sisyphus section has been a true dark night of the soul, at least as dark a night as such an fundamentally well-adjusted sensibility can experience. And now the central consciousness of the book emerges fully from despair and goes about the poet/Poet's business.

As I have already suggested, what we have from here on is more a collection of poems—often fine poems indeed—than a metapoem greater than its parts.

Of course we still don't know if we are hearing from the poet or (merely?) The Poet. We simply can't know for sure. If we're good readers and responsible epistemologists, we must keep our options open. Dunn knows this. And he's got us where he wants us.

We move away from Sisyphus—we think—and into the section entitled "Here," a group of nine poems. From the section's title, we might expect to be on earth, not some fantasyland of fictions or allegories. And we are.

The Sisyphus fiction is dropped and we are back in the world of physical pleasures and reasonable misgivings, mixed emotions and "ordinary suffering," the world where "eternal damnation doesn't do / anyone any good." Pressed to find the section's meaning in the book's overall design, we could say that the poet/Poet has regained his balance now, has regained his absurd feeling of gratitude for the feelings and freedoms of his unheroic, supernaturally bereft life.

The four-poem group comprising, in order, "Questions," "A New Year," "She," "Best" can be seen as a brace of love poems and is best when the poems find the worm in the apple, worst when they celebrate unconditionally or nearly so. The sentimental "She" and "Best" are outright failures as poems, however successful they might be as, say, love notes. "Questions" and "A New Year" are also soft but have their moments of effective wit and equivocal pleasure.

The first poem in the section, though, is a particularly haunting one. In "The Arm" a man has found "A doll's pink, broken-off arm / . . . floating in a pond." To this man (as to the poet/Poet), "absence always felt like opportunity." Here, it's an opportunity to luxuriate a bit in speculation and compassion. If we thought the first section's teasing, overarching narrative had been dropped, if we thought Sisyphus was now gone, we must note the resonance of a Camus-like "punishment that didn't work." "The Arm" is much more disturbing than your typical atrocity poems, those eager thrusts at our humanity that make us armor our hearts and suspect the motives of the poet. "The Arm" is a "realistic" narrative in which Dunn's broken world is given vivid reality. "A doll's pink, broken-off arm / was floating in a pond / a man had come to with his dog. / There was no sad child nearby . . . // and this pleased the man." This is the broken world loved. Not loved into wholeness, but loved into an attentiveness and even perversity of the senses and the imagination. The man imagines stories of conflict and hurt that could have brought this doll's arm to this place, working himself into being "struck / by how much misery / the human spirit can absorb." The poem ends, as many of Dunn's do, with a glimpse of a likely future, in this case a future in which the tender-hearted, perhaps ridiculous man brings the world's brokenness to another, where the fragment can bring a husband and a wife together, if only in their questioning. "The Arm" is a poem readers won't soon forget.

The section's other poems, "The Affair," "The Unsaid," "Often the Pleasures of Departure," and "Here" meditate and play and reason and move with that extraordinary ease of the fine Dunn poem. Much of Dunn's magic seems impossible for a reviewer to articulate—or even to grasp. Many years ago the insightful poet and reviewer Jonathan Holden wrote, "How Dunn manages to deploy plain statements with such power and . . . such accuracy . . ., without the assistance and dazzlement of gorgeous sound, I simply don't understand."

"The Affair" gives us a "he" who wants gods who punish adulteries, mainly his own, wants them to replace his ability to choose with divine compulsion. We suppose he wants to be Sisyphus: "For a moment he longed for the old days / when there were gods to take offense, / when a man who wanted too much / would be reduced to size / with a life-long redundancy or thunderbolt. / But, no, there'd be nothing so neat. / It came to a choice, and he chose everything. / He left almost everything behind." Again, for Dunn, the arbitrariness of the world that makes our choosing so vital is the pain that creates the pleasure of being alive, truly alive. If death is the mother of beauty, then compulsion is the mother of freedom.

"The Unsaid" evokes the messy contingencies of ordinary existence. Unlike the world in the Sisyphus poems, though, this one seems meaningful partly because it hurts. Depression's affective numbness is gone. The couple is together in their apartness. Sisyphus was in "hell," a Dantean sort of Hell to the extent that the soul despairs because of its alienation from sources of joy. "The Affair" gives us alienation, but it is alienation as communication.

Like Emily Dickinson, Stephen Dunn examines blended, shifting motives and yearnings in a way that manages to confound psychology, epistemology, and ethics and to create his own distinctive brand of precision and drama. Dunn renders memorable the truism that the simplest motives are never simple.

"Often the Pleasure of Departure" shows the committed ambivalist both quietly celebrating and mildly indicting his own, perfectly commonplace emotional complexity. Surely this is the sort of achievement (if not content) Pope had in mind when he said the poet's job was to convey "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Dunn's poem begins,

Often the pleasures of departure are so close
to the genuine sadness of leaving
he feared his goodbyes

would reveal it, an errant tone perhaps
at odds with a sincere word.
And though he knew that anyone's heart

might lean two ways at once,
he also knew that no one could be comfortable
with such a truth, not even himself.

And the poem ends,

he always wished it were possible to say—
for truth's sake and because he felt it
a lot—"I miss you a little."

The book's second section ends with the serviceable "Here," a piece in which the poet/Poet turns his back decisively on nihilism. Dunn's previous book, the Pulitzer-winning Different Hours, ended with "A Postmortem Guide" ("for my eulogist, in advance"), in which Dunn said, "I learned to live without hope / as well as I could, almost happily, / in the despoiled and radiant now." In "Here" (as in the here and now) the speaker considers very briefly then rejects the poem's Aldous Huxley epigraph, "Maybe this world is another planet's Hell." Nope, the speaker says: "I sense I'm on one of the good planets."

America's inescapable poet, its ubiquitous poet, is Walt Whitman, and Whitman's position is the one most diametrically opposed to that of the Huxley epigraph (and to that of the other inescapable American poet, T.S. Eliot). Whitman's celebration is of course too loud a tone for Dunn. But if he can't agree that the appropriate response to this world is ecstatic celebration, he can say that the appropriate response is—often—gratitude. Local Visitations's main movement, the body of the book, really, ends here, and it ends this way: "More than once I've walked / under the sun and beneath the luminous moon / not knowing what or whom to thank."


We could say that Stephen Dunn's typical tone, his typical stance, is somewhere in the middle of a continuum that stretches from the extremes of early Whitman's buoyant Transcendentalism to early Eliot's horrified pessimism. In his "The Good and Not So Good" in Walking Light, Dunn says that "Precision . . . is more radical than passion," a statement that applies to both positive and negative passions. Dunn's place in the middle ground is somewhere near that other commonsense materialist Robert Frost. And yet Dunn is more truly whimsical than Frost—whose whimsy is always deadly calculation.

In the earlier "A Postmortem Guide" the poet/Poet told us, "I was burned by books early / and kept sidling up to the flame" and that his eulogist is to say that "at the end [he] had no need / for God . . . ." Dunn's love of books and his artist's prerogative to play God combine to inspire the final section of Local Visitations, a section that, despite being the book's title section, strikes me as at best a mere extended epilogue. There are twenty pieces here, nearly half of the book's forty-four. To the extent that they serve the volume's overall design, one can see them as the work of the no-longer-depressed poet/Poet, a creator who is definitely back in the saddle.

What's missing in these perfectly competent and often delightful poems? Perhaps the authentic flame of literature, a speaker who is convincingly burned right before our eyes, or at least singed.

Dunn uses his resurrected writers for their alien eyes through which he can see anew the culture to which he has perhaps become somewhat blind through familiarity. He is excellent at exposing the superficiality of American culture—yet he is no satirist, in fact seems repelled by the satirist's necessary self-righteousness and harshness. American superficiality is merely subject matter, color and texture. The ironies in this section are frequently heavy-handed, though, not the light, contemplative touch we've come to expect from Dunn. Still, there are many pleasures in this section.

The premise of "Local Visitations" is that great nineteenth-century fiction writers are hereby resurrected by the poet/Poet. We get those who wrote novels and short stories, not verse, because (as the poet Philip Levine would probably agree) they "had given [the poet/Poet] more / rare glimpses into the cohabitation of the mysterious / and the real, more hard news from the mind's / hidden caves and provinces . . . ." It is possible, I suppose, that I would admire the poems more if I knew the South Jersey towns to which Dunn transports these writers. But I doubt it, since I sometimes find here that the better I know the author's work, the less I like Dunn's treatment. This the case with "Poe in Margate" which reveals nothing new or surprising about poor Poe (but which does end with the sharp observation that "his insane narrators needed / everything that was rational in him all the time.")

Dunn's resurrected writers are (in order) Chekhov, Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, Poe, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Henry James, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Stephen Crane, Stendhal, Twain, Goethe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lewis Carroll, Dostoyevsky, Mary Shelley, Hawthorne, and Melville, all of whom have "come back looking like / [their] last famous photograph[s]."

What can one say about these poems? Dunn too often goes for the predictable joke, the fatuous echo. These trite allusions contribute to the feeling that these pieces are more exercises than real poems. "Dickens in Pleasantville begins, "It is neither the best nor worst of times." Other poems turn to the obvious without satisfyingly exploiting it. For instance, Lewis Carroll spends "the evenings, if not all day," cruising the Internet for porn sites.

But even some the weakest pieces have their memorable moments. "Stephen Crane in Longport" begins delightfully, drawing shrewdly on the (unnamed) Crane story "The Open Boat": "Occasionally the weak survive / because the god that doesn't exist / wants to give us something to misinterpret." (Then the poem indulges itself in merely clever echoes of—despite the prose rationale for the section—Crane poems.) "Dostoyevsky in Wildwood" shows us the great novelist distressed by the spiritual vacuity of contemporary America yet fascinated by "women in shorts so short / you could follow a leg to some hidden center // of a rumored universe." Charlotte Bronte, now living in Leeds Point, "had married, had even learned to respect // the weakness in men, those qualities they called / their strengths."

It is telling that this famously good-tempered poet just doesn't like the sometimes satiric, usually detached, frequently rarefied, always elitist Henry James—though he strives to be fair about him. Of course, most of what Dunn admires about these writers are things we can admire in his own work. As he says of Mark Twain, ". . . because he knew / the fake in himself, he could spot a fake across any room— / some posture, some rigging full of thin air."

Dunn's treatment of women here is more interesting than his treatment of men. His most successful visitations are, I think, "Jane Austen in Egg Harbor" and "Mary Shelley in Brigantine." His affinity with Jane Austen, never one-eyed amid the beautiful contraries, outwardly conventional but secretly radical, is made obvious in lines like these: "Advocacy: a clear indication to her of a lesser mind"; "It was a common mistake / to think her shockable because demure." Austen's clear-sighted adaptability is celebrated in the poem's last line: "She thought she might be happy here."

Happy? Isn't happiness to Dunn itself a clear indication of a lesser mind? Certainly, an unreflective belief in unambiguous happiness is to Dunn a sign of naivety or worse. But there is a state of aware acceptance and reasonable gratitude that Dunn seems to consider consistent with what most of us might call happiness. For the paradoxicalist Dunn, happiness is not necessarily always a happy state. Paul Crichton's recent review of Ziyad Marar's book The Happiness Paradox might help here. Crichton writes,

Underlying the question of whether I am happy are two more fundamental questions: 'what do I want?' and 'how ought I to live?' . . . The paradox of happiness is that we want both freedom and justification, but the freer we become the less we depend on . . . approval . . ., and the more we want . . . approval . . . the less free we become. . . . It seems . . . quite plausible that we oscillate between the desire to be free and act in ways unconstrained . . . on the one hand and the desire to gain approval and be loved on the other, but should we call this state happiness? This sounds more like a state of unremitting torment than what most of us take happiness to be, namely something more positive and less volatile.

Of course, I am suggesting that it's that "more positive and less volatile" definition of happiness that Dunn rejects. Marar and Crichton have in mind social constraint and approval, but it seems to me that if we substitute the constraints and approvals of, say, one's God or at least one's fate and one's own conscience, then both Marar's thesis and Crichton's misgivings almost perfectly describe Dunn's view of the problem—and, yes, the paradox—of happiness.

Dunn treats Mary Shelley with special tenderness and intelligence. And it seems no accident that he has placed her in Brigantine, a town whose name fuses the notions of confinement and freedom. An earlier Dunn poem, "Backwater" from Different Hours, makes this clear: "Brigantine—I heard prison [brig] and freedom [libertine?] / in that name. Walking a beach so called / felt appropriately in between." Dunn empathetically presents the lonely author of Frankenstein, the long-suffering wife of the poet Percy Shelley and now the uncomfortable recipient of celebrity worship. Because of her famous creation, she "found herself accepted / by those who had no monster in them—/ the most frightening people alive, she thought." America's culture of entertainment reduces the terrifying and heart-breaking to the merely diverting.

How startling . . . no one knew about her past,
the scandal with Percy, the tragic early deaths,
yet sad that her Frankenstein had become
just a name, like Dracula or Satan, something
that stood for a kind of scariness, good for a laugh.
She found herself welcome everywhere.

Spiritual shallowness manifests itself in reflexive consumerism: "She was amazed now that people believed / you could shop for everything you might need." Challenges to the pervasive culture of the resolutely superficial are met with incomprehension: "At the computer store she asked an expert / if there was such a thing as too much knowledge, / or going too far? He directed her to a website // where he thought the answers were." The slant-rhyming of "going too far" with "where the answers were" is characteristic of Dunn's quiet formal ironies.

"Mary Shelley at Brigantine" is the third poem from the end of the book. The poem ends with Mary realizing, like Dunn's Sisyphus, that her chronic existential pain is gone. Good as the poem is, Dunn was right not to end the book with it, though, because Mary Shelley's hope about an afterlife is delusion: "Could her children, dead so young, / be alive somewhere, too?" she wonders. The Godlike poet/Poet immediately says, "She couldn't know / that only her famous mother had such a chance"—a reference, one must assume, to a Dunn poem about Mary Wollstonecraft, a poem that has yet to be published, finished, or perhaps even started.

The last two poems in the book are in fact "Hawthorne in Tuckerton" and "Melville at Barnegat Light." Hawthorne "still loved the repressed, the avoided. // Nothing made him more alert than a large passion / twisted, coiled in the recesses of an innocent." Maybe these lines suggest what's missing in so many of these poems: the large passions that writers like Bronte, Dickens, Poe, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Stowe, Dostoyevsky, Shelley, Hawthorne, and Melville give voice to. Dunn's is a quiet muse, but to give us such writers, he must find a way to invoke, to animate their muses. The ending of the Hawthorne poem sounds more like something Dunn would think than something Hawthorne would: "Adultery / was so much more interesting when everyone didn't do it."

Stephen Dunn can forgive corruption because we are all corrupted. In this he is like Hawthorne. But he is kinder and more generous than Hawthorne. This is partly because Dunn, unlike the author of the Scarlet Letter, does not really believe in sin. And it's partly because he is less judgmental toward those who are judgmental, recognizing a subtler form of hypocrisy—let's say a postmodern form of hypocrisy—than would be appropriate for Hawthorne's stark, brilliant art. Dunn can be playfully magnanimous toward the corrupted reader who gets pleasure from poems only by dissecting them for the same reason that Dunn's hero James Wright could be generous toward the corrupted President Warren Harding. Dunn writes, "[Harding's] corruptions had no malice in them, no bite, nothing to hate." (See Dunn's beautiful essay "The Hand Reaching Into the Crowd" in Walking Light.) Error and vulnerability bring out tenderness and sorrow in Dunn. Only malice can bring out hatred—which, like Whitman, Dunn rarely finds useful in his poetry. The credible but irrational hatred of a Sylvia Plath speaker no doubt strikes him as at the least unseemly, at the most inhuman. As Robert Lowell intriguingly put it in his foreword to Ariel, "In these poems, . . . Sylvia Plath becomes herself, . . . hardly a person at all . . . ."

I assume that Dunn closed Local Visitations with "Melville at Barnegat Light" because of the subdued yet resonant affirmation of its ending. Local Visitations is Dunn's twelfth book of poems, and we see, especially in this last section that the poet/Poet has recovered from his depression and despair and has returned to a rather lavish plenitude of making. I see this Melville as another mask for the poet/Poet, who has discovered (since the Pulitzer in 2000) "the startling emptiness of success" he attributes to the author of the best-sellers Typee and Omoo, but whose real fame was of course posthumous. The cute echo of "Bartleby the Scrivener" is, to me, an irritating blemish ("he preferred not to"), but the observation that "for every magnitude he felt an incompleteness" nicely combines an understanding of Melville's belief that for the artist "Failure is the true test of greatness" with a formulation of Dunn's own experience of simply being alive. Of course, philistine American culture gets its pointed, though not altogether unkind, jab from a poet who may be having at least some second thoughts about elevating fiction over poetry: "'There goes Melville,' townspeople would say, proud / that a man whose books had been made into movies / walked among them."

The book ends with what, except for the headgear and the precise wording of the quotation, could be a portrait of the artist of Local Visitations:

[H]e, who had called for
"The sane madness of vital truth," would tip his Greek
sailor's cap and smile. On this earth, he thought,
surely there must be some vista from which all of this
would make sense, some final gladdening.

Melville rejected belief in the afterlife a hundred years before Dunn was born. But Melville's torments about the matter, inherent in his temperament, were exacerbated by nineteenth-century Christian America. Existentialist-postmodernist Dunn finds a touch of vertigo but mainly freedom and pleasure in unbelief. And, living in the America of spireless malls, Dunn perhaps finds it much easier to accept Dr. Johnson's level-headed, pre-Romantic advice that "[this] world is not to be despised but as it is compared with something better." To a Stephen Dunn, Romantic yearning after the nonexistent Other World is certainly understandable and can even be interesting. But, really, it is not quite respectable. Not quite mature.  

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