What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009
Stephen Dunn, an experienced poet with a litany of accolades after his name, has published a selection of works from the last fifteen years, along with a slim collection of new pieces, in What Goes On In a wry, raw voice Dunn’s poems touch upon matters of politics, success, and sex.
Stark and economical with his words, Dunn reminds us of the vicissitudes of life, how change, especially growing old, affect those base matters. Time and again, he returns to sex, like a craftsman reviewing his creations and turning each imperfection over and over again in his mind. I see in this a tortured yearning void that is made bigger by the discovery of inadequacy. He writes in “The Waiting”:
…My body was an ache, a silence. It could not affirm how long it had waited for you.
It could not claw or insist or extend its hands. It was just a stupid body, closed up and voracious.
With a poet’s flair for metaphor, “Flirtation,” recounts the first parries of a couple in a café as the room slowly becomes populated with the guests Illness, Boredom, and Sorrow. He writes, “Look, Sorrow’s just been let in and given its favorite table at the far end of the room. It’s taking off its cloak. They’ll not see it for while.” Although such moments in Dunn’s works seem pointedly and hopelessly morose, there are moments of celebration, of the “beautiful accident of her bra commingling with your sock on a bedpost…in what has been without a doubt an emergency room, / both of your having died and gone to heaven / and now, amazingly, breathing evenly once again.” This particular work, “Best,” stands out to me as one of the more deftly executed works in the volume. The quickening pace and uneven line breaks make this sexual encounter a vicariously visceral one for the reader.
While this volume does contain some minute samplings of moments, such as that in “Best,” they are few and far between. Often, Dunn’s tone, if not downright downtrodden, remains aloof and misanthropic. When reading a poem, I want to feel myself breathing in each line, tapping and pulsing and nodding along with a rhythmic compliance to the words on the page, the images rolling off the tongue. I was disappointed that Dunn’s verse often failed to do this for me, and was often left with the impression that the poet had some higher knowledge than I, that his phrases were indiscernible to but a few.
However, I feel some hesitation in making these claims. To me, poetry remains ever more subjective than prose. An intense emotional connection is more integral to feeling unity with a poem than with a novel. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people who feel such a connection with Dunn’s work.