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:
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
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
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
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.