Stephen Dunn

2 posts

When Bitter Meets Sweet

bittersweet

In poetry writing we see many dancing pairs. Sometimes they are pulled tight into a slow dance, and other times one spins off from the other for a bit of solo work before magnetically returning home to her partner.

This came to mind as I read Stephen Dunn’s poem “Sweetness.” It starts with generalities and philosophical abstractions about life, then settles in to some specifics by finding its way to a concrete example. The camera slowly pans across life, then zooms in on a specific life.

In this case, the poem is tracing life’s bittersweet roots. How can something so bad be so beautiful? Watch for the poem’s “turn” in the sixth tercet:

 

Sweetness
by Stephen Dunn

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

 

Most interesting here is how sweetness arrives, staying “just long enough / to make sense of what it means to be alive, / then returns to its dark / source.” It seems passing strange to see sweetness described this way, but that is one of the functions of poetry, to explain the passing strange, or at least to make it a possibility for startled readers.

When sweetness travels a “bitter road,” Dunn seems to imply, it is most like life. It has come far for this epiphany, this understanding that blending and contrasts most often bring out the true nature of life.

Dance on, paradox.

Poems That End with a Question

dunn

Let’s hear it for poems that end with a question. Reason? Questions are more fun than statements. Questions better reflect life, which is, after all, nothing but a big question mark. Good question makers are much more inspiring to be around and to talk to than big pronouncement types who hit us with their ego-driven blah, blah, blahs like so many blasts of hubris in a growing balloon.

Last time out I discussed a New Yorker poem that gave me pause like so many big-glossy-winning poetic efforts do. You know, the type poem that has you saying, “Really?” to some imaginary editor with an imaginary dream job.

Today, though, I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him (move over Mark Antony). The Sept. 4th issue serves up a breezy philosophical piece by old friend Stephen Dunn, a poem that ends on a question that, like every good question, leaves you thinking. Have a look, why don’t you:

“The Inheritance”
by Stephen Dunn
 
You shouldn’t be surprised that the place
you always sought, and now have been given,
carries with it a certain disappointment.
Here you are, finally inside, and not a friend
in sight. The only gaiety that exists
is the gaiety you’ve brought with you,
and how little you had to bring.
The bougainvillea outside your front window,
like the gardener himself, has the look
of something that wants constant praise.
And the exposed wooden beams,
once a main attraction, now feel pretentious,
fit for someone other than you.
But it’s yours now and you suspect
you’ll be known by the paintings you hang,
the books you shelve, and no doubt
you need to speak about the wallpaper
as if it weren’t your fault. Perhaps that’s why
wherever you go these days
vanity has followed you like a clownish dog.
You’re thinking that with a house like this
you should throw a big party and invite
a Nick Carraway and ask him to bring
your dream girl, and would he please also
referee the uncertainties of the night?
You’re thinking that some fictional 
characters can be better friends
than real friends can ever be.
For weeks now your dreams have been
offering you their fractured truths.
You don’t know how to inhabit them yet,
and it might cost another fortune to find out.
Why not just try to settle in,
take your place, however undeserved,
among the fortunate? Why not trust 
that almost everyone, even in 
his own house, is a troubled guest?

 

Very cool, don’t you think? Especially if you consider your mind a “house” of sorts. We are all troubled guests in our short durations here, and just when we think we’ve stumbled upon the key to happiness, we are disabused of the notion in swift fashion.

Some people, for instance, think the key to happiness is a new start, as in moving away. They quickly discover, however, that you can’t move away from yourself. That “house” we call a mortal coil moves with you.

Money? An inheritance? It is to laugh. In that sense, Dunn’s poem is a cautionary laugh, a troubled, how-did-this-happen laugh.

I don’t know about you, but I like troubled poems, ones with furrowed brows, ones that finish in a questioning tone. It’s as if the poet brings up a problem in life and then hands it off. “Here,” he seems to say, giving it over like a meditation bead, “why don’t you chew this over for a bit.”

And so, we’re left with bougainvilleas and Carraway-less dreams that gently disturb us. Isn’t that what good poetry ending in questions do? Isn’t that one thing we ask of them?

 

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