I'm a sucker for significance. Maybe it's my blue-collar upbringing with protestant work-ethic, or maybe my search for God, which led me into the professional ministry, and then later out of it. Perhaps I'm a narcissist, wanting the universe to be permanently changed in some huge, measurable way because I passed here. Whatever the reason, for a long time Stephen Dunn's poems, beginning with Angels, have brought comfort to my longing for meaning, without compromising my appetite for a subversion of expectations. His latest collection, What Goes On does not disappoint on either count.
After a healthy portion of poems from collections going back to Loosestrife (1996), including meaty morsels from Different Hours (which won the Pulitzer in 2000), and side orders from four additional volumes (Riffs & Reciprocities, Local Visitations, The Insistence Of Beauty and Everything Else In The World, the book serves up twenty New Poems, most of which use ontological issues as main ingredients--some classical in nature, and others decidedly postmodern in flavor--all with gorgeous language, memorable presentation, big-boned ideas, and a stick-to-your-ribs substance that is practically unheard of in this age of extra-light, quickly-prepared, smoke and mirror-flavored, when-it's-gone-it's-gone, fast-food, ingest-on-demand poetry.
Here is a taste-test to determine if you'd like to order the entree.
"When I say your hair/is the color of a moonless night/in which I've often been lost," writes Dunn in the first lines of "Language: A Love Poem," "I mean approximately that dark." Signification for Dunn is not an a priori one-to-one correspondence between language and objective reality; while it does have to do with representation of meaning, that meaning is only the beginning of a process of discovery of connection, as seen in these later lines:
The rose, to me, signifies the rose,
and the guitar signifies
a musical instrument
called the guitar. At other times
language is a slaughterhouse,
a hammering down, its subjects hanging
from hooks, on the verge
of being delicious. When I say
these things to you it's to watch
how certain words play
themselves out on your face,
as if no one with imagination
can ever escape being a witness.
Dunn is a master at calling his readers into his world, where objects and ideas are recognized as having an emotional history, but not at the cost of exhausting the relationship between them and with us. It is only by looking at their past meaning that a future with them exists:
The whale for example, no matter
its whiteness, is just a mammal
posing as a big fish, except
of course if someone is driven
to pursue it. That changes everything.
So does Dunn--his poems transform every commonplace word into a love-affair with life, if not with every incarnation of it.
Friday, July 16, 2010
What Goes On: Stephen Dunn
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over a decade. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, an assistant editor at Trio House Press, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com