Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: Between Angels, by Stephen Dunn

Because there are so many poets I am compelled to write about, I hesitate adding Stephen Dunn to my list of top ten poetry books to add to your holiday wish list because I've already posted about him (see "What Goes On," 07/16/10). But since his work always seems to appear for me in my darkest, as well as my brightest hours, and since I have not written about my first encounter with his work, he has earned a place in my current Top Ten Series.

Of all his books, the one I could not leave behind on my desert island trip would be Between Angels. Without further introduction, here is Dunn's title poem:

Between angels, on this earth
absurdly between angels, I
try to navigate

in the bluesy middle ground
of desire and withdrawal,
in the industrial air,
among the bittersweet

efforts of people to connect,
make sense, endure.
The angels out there,
what are they?

Old helpers, half-believed,
or dazzling better selves,

that I turn away from
as if I preferred
all the ordinary, dispiriting
tasks at hand?

I shop in the cold
neon aisles
thinking of pleasure,
I kiss my paycheck

a mournful kiss goodbye
thinking of pleasure,
in the evening replenish

my drink, make a choice
to read or love or watch,
and increasingly I watch.
I do not mind living

like this. I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything's true
at different times

in the capacious day,
just as I don't forget
and always forget

half the people in the world
are dispossessed.
Here chestnut oaks
and tenements

make their unequal claims.
Someone thinks of betrayal.
A child spills her milk;
I'm on my knees cleaning it up--

sponge, squeeze. I change nothing,
just move it around.
The inconsequential floor
is beginning to shine.

Dunn's angels, sometimes in glorious plain sight, sometimes more present in their absence, most often camouflaged in slant light, form a divine/human conceit, willing to act as guide long after the final poem is read--"What are they?" Dunn both asks and answers: "Old helpers, half-believed,/or dazzling better selves,/imagined." This hypothesis is tested through the remainder of the collection and is found both confirmed (as in "The Guardian Angel": "When the poor are evicted, he stands/between them/and the bank, but the bank sees nothing"), and wanting (as in "Dancing With God": "the confirmation of/an old guess:/God was a wild god,/into the most mindless rock,/but graceful, looking--this excited me--like no one I could love,/cruel mouth, eyes evocative of promises unkept.").

Lest readers call me to task on confusing "God" with "angel," let me refer to the old testament story of Jacob wrestling with what the writer of Genesis calls "a man," Jacob himself in the same passage refers to as "God," and the writer of the book of Hosea refers to as "the angel."

That's the beauty of poetry, "everything's true/at different times//in the capacious day,"--a foreshadowing of another line from a much later Dunn poem (from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Different Hours), "The Reverse Side": "It's why when we speak a truth/some of us instantly feel foolish/as if a deck inside us has been shuffled/and there it is--the opposite/of what we said."

Hear, then, each of these two poems--the one portraying the divinity of human-kind, and the other the humanity of the divine. Notice, too, how beautifully Dunn weds form (tercets--a prosody of divinity--the first and third lines of which are mediated by the second, the prevalence of dactyls) with content. Then the openness of the ultimate single line...

The Guardian Angel

Afloat between lives and stale truths,
he realizes
he's never truly protected one soul,

they all die anyway, and what good
is solace,
solace is cheap. The signs are clear:

the drooping wings, the shameless thinking
about utility
and self. It's time to stop.

The guardian angel lives for a month
with other angels,
sings the angelic songs, is reminded

that he doesn't have a human choice.
The angel of love
lies down with him, and loving

restores to him his pure heart.
Yet how hard it is
to descend into sadness once more.

When the poor are evicted, he stands
between them
and the bank, but the bank sees nothing

in its way. When the meek are overpowered
he's there, the thin air
through which they fall. Without effect

he keeps getting in the way of insults.
He keeps wrapping
his wings around those in the cold.

Even his lamentations are unheard,
though now,
in for the long haul, trying to live

beyond despair, he believes, he needs
to believe
everything he does takes root, hums

beneath the surfaces of the world.

In "Dancing With God," Dunn sets the standard, for me, of marrying the cognitive with the perceptive. I can't say that no one else can do it as well, but I can say that no one does it any better.

Dancing With God

At first the surprise
of being singled out,
the dance floor crowded
and me not looking my best,
a too-often-worn dress
and the man with me
a budding casualty
of one repetition too much
God just touched his shoulder
and he left.
Then the confirmation of
and old guess:
God was a wild god,
into the most mindless rock,
but graceful,
looking--this excited me--
like no one I could love,
cruel mouth, eyes evocative
of promises unkept.
I never danced better, freer,
as if dancing were my way
of saying how easily
I could be with him, or apart.
When the music turned slow
God help me close
and I felt for a moment
I'd mistaken him,
that he was Death
and this the famous embrace
before the lights go out.
But God kept holding me
and I him
until the band stopped
and I stood looking at a figure
I wanted to slap
or forgive for something,
I couldn't decide which.
He left then, no thanks,
no sign
that he'd felt anything
more than an earthly moment
with someone who could've been
anyone on earth.
To this day I don't know why
I thought he was God,
though it was clear
there was no going back
to the man who brought me,
nie man
with whom I'd slept
and grown tired,
who danced wrong,
who never again
could do anything right.

"The Retarded Angel" seems the poem most emblematic of the effect of Dunn's entire collection (yea, Dunn's entire body of work) on me and on my writing, particularly in its final five and one-half stanzas:

Other angels have urged us
to change our lives,

but you seem to know
we drift, stumbling
toward even the smallest

improvement. To see you
is to imagine how long
and with what difficulty

it took you to reach us,
years perhaps
of landing elsewhere

Whoever sent you
must have been desperate
and accidentally brilliant, you

with whom we'd never argue,
the damaged, unnerving,
barely hopeful, last resort.

That's precisely why Between Angels is on my list...


granddaddy said...

What a brilliant conception of/connection with the impossible, inseparable mysteries of humanity and divinity, walking side by side like poet and reader lost in time, leaving a path but no tracks in the snow. How I loathe the image of an omnipotent God as small as human, as reflecting, as petty, as manipulative. How I love the image of an omnipresent God as small as human, as empathizing, as fragile, as vulnerable. How I hate God's inflexible teaching of lessons and rules; how I love God's inescapable tears of sorrow and loss.

My Amazon box with The Selected Levis and Malena Morling's Astoria just arrived. I can't wait to see which one to keep and which one to give my daughter-in-law to whom I traditionally give a book of poetry in this season. Maybe I still have time to order Between Angels for one of us, and if it arrives too late to be a Christmas gift, I guess I would have to keep it. Oh, the inescapable complexity of the human condition!

Terry Lucas said...

That my posts actually influence the commerce of poetry is more than I could hope for....