January 2009

Paul Franz


What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 by Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn’s subject is daily life in its broadest dimensions, including not only the typical domestic minutiae, but also the problems of love, death, the loves and deaths of friends, and politics that impinge on our daily thoughts. The Pulitzer Prize winner’s What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 reflects the sustained attempts of a prolific writer to address such questions through the lens of what he calls the world’s “beautiful contraries.” Although this and similar turns of phrase might suggest a Hopkins-like fascination with sensory diversity, Dunn tends to be more concerned with opposing concepts than opposite things or qualities. His insistence that contradiction is endemic to life underlies his emphasis on precision, through which he hopes to escape the authority of “the terrified and the simple” who always “latch onto one story.”

Dunn is at his best when he commits himself most fully to this sort of objectivity. This usually happens either when he is telling stories about other people (including his younger self, as in the fine poem “Wild” near the beginning of the book), or when he speculates entirely free from narrative, as in the prose essay-poems on paired topics reprinted from 1998’s Riffs and Reciprocities. An effective combination of narration and reflection comes in the sequence from 2003’s Local Visitations in which the poet imagines famous writers in various New Jersey settings. In “Chekhov in Port Republic,” Dunn reveals a short story writer’s incisiveness when he tells us how his transplanted protagonist “didn’t believe / geography made much difference; we were all the same.” This thought sounds banal, except that Dunn has traced its origin to the Russian writer-physician’s daily experience of treating infirm human bodies, whose common mortality both inspires and sets limits to his more permanent art.

Dunn’s portrait of Chekhov fuses biography and criticism, yet it is reached imaginatively through a creative insight. Such moments reveal the greatest promise of his work; they also make it more frustrating when he seems to be merely fiddling, setting up dichotomies for their own sake without deeply exploring their points of tension. Some readers, impressed when one of his new poems wonders “if no one with imagination / can ever escape being a witness,” might wish the poet had trusted in this faculty and hunted down all his themes with the doggedness they deserve. And yet, it is precisely Dunn’s point that one does not adequately come to grips with the sufferings of the “Bosnians, Sudanese” who flicker across the suburban television screens of “The Living” simply by noting how “[t]o think of them is to lose / any right to complain.” Taken as satire, Dunn’s view of small town life from the inside out, with illness, death, and global politics hovering in the wings, leaves little room for argument. 

Of course, in the Muses’ house there are many mansions. Squabbling questions come late, if at all, to the poet whose language is compelling. Unfortunately, Dunn too often lapses into just the style one might expect from the author of fourteen books of observations and reflections on the unexpected: one-size-fits-all, returnable with receipt. His diction is colloquial, his tone conversational, and these shape his technique. Hardly a moment goes by when we forget we are being talked to, when we cannot see the poet hard at work, fastening things together in his preference for simile over metaphor, then qualifying, questioning, and explaining his own inventions. In Dunn’s case, this style tends in the direction of the prose poem, and it is in the selections from Riffs and Reciprocities that he appears at his freest and most energized. Successful experiments in more traditional genres include the book’s two villanelles, “Criminal” and “Grudges,” both of which interestingly thematize their form as a means of suggesting hidden parallels between overt enemies. Elsewhere, Dunn’s enjambments can be telling, as when we learn how the husband and wife of “The Unsaid” “arrived at their house separately / in the same car,” or humorous, as in this pun from “Mercy”: “welcome to the execution / of a theory.” Most of the time, however, he opts for an unproblematic three-to-five beat line or ambling pentameter, occasionally settling into the bland conformity of syntactic division and line-ending displayed in this passage from “An Abbreviated Tour of the Not Yet Fallen World”:

Home would feel different
any time I’d reason to believe
I might not safely return.
Once, after circling in turbulence
then skidding on the runway,
living room took on new meaning.
I put my feet up on the ottoman,
and with a glass of Glenlivet
luxuriated in the company
of everything taken for granted.

Doubtless this is partly intended as a joke on its own moralizing, but too many such passages deprive the book of bite. A different selection of poems, perhaps drawing on Dunn’s total career, instead of only since the mid-'90s, might be valuable reading in its entirety. As the present volume stands, Dunn shows that he is a meticulous writer, but his meticulousness is too often spent in protecting himself from the wrong opinions than in crafting memorable poems.

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009 by Stephen Dunn
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393067750
203 pages