Sunday, February 19, 2017

Whereas: Poems by Stephen Dunn

"What's a poet anyway but someone who gives/ the unnamed a name?"
Many years ago I came across Stephen Dunn's poetry. I thought I knew where but it turned out to be a false memory. It happens to me more and more often now, misremembering something vividly recalled, learning it didn't happen that way at all. I requested Dunn's new book of poems Whereas through Edelweiss because I recalled his name and wanted to read his latest poems.

Dunn begins with a poem on his seventy-fifth birthday considering "the movement from ignorance to astonishment" and the "strangeness, the immensity" of life. He ends with A Short History of Long Ago, recalling the simple things of childhood that brought contentment followed by adulthood's choices and desires, concluding, "A bad memory is the key to happiness./I apologize for everything I haven't done."

These poems written from the wisdom of maturity are thoughtful without being abstruse, universal by being personal. Duplicity and truth, the role of the storyteller, nature vs artifice, faith, and superstition, marriage and parenthood, the mystery of life--his themes are universal.

I read the poems several times, with certain lines resonating with me.

The Melancholy of the Nude considers an artist's model who lives in "a world where she was both woman and thing."

 In Be Careful you are warned not to look into the eyes of an animal, no matter how beautiful, for staring means aggression, and "Doesn't blood usually follow when language fails?"

In Even the Awful he writes, "I would prefer an occasional bout of joy, which I could recover from in a day or so, and maybe even speak about, whereas ecstasy (that one time) made me silent." A deceased friend "just lay there, immobile, like a Calder without a breath of air to move it. In fact, he had become an 'it', and those of us who knew him noted how poorly itness suited him."

In Creatures we see him at the seashore watching a pelican following a dolphin, feeding on a school of fish and concludes that "to step out/of our houses any morning is to risk/being variously selected, and that nothing/like kindness of beauty of justice/will ever change the truth of some lives."

I keep returning to these poems. Each reading I discover something I had missed.

Dunn won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

I received a free ebook from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Incisively capturing the oddities of our logic and the whimsies of our reason, the poems in Whereas show there is always another side to a story. With graceful rhythm and equal parts humor and seriousness, Stephen Dunn considers the superstition and sophistry embedded in everyday life: household objects that seem to turn against us, the search for meaning in the barrage of daily news, the surprising confessions between neighbors across a row of hedges. Finding beauty in the ordinary, this collection affirms the absurdity of making affirmations, allowing room for more rethinking, reflection, revision, prayer, and magic in the world.

Stephen Dunn
W. W. Norton & Company
Publication February 21, 2017
ISBN-13: 978-0393254679
ISBN-10: 0393254674

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