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Gregory Djanikian

Gregory Djanikian

Gregory Djanikian is the author of five collections of poetry, the latest of which is So I Will Till the Ground (Carnegie Mellon). He directs the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Stephen Dunn's Compositional Strategies:
Verse and Reverse

In his essay, "The Good and Not So Good Poem," Stephen Dunn describes the process by which we come to new ways of seeing and saying:

Not only must poets turn away from the tired or dead language, they must be wary of their best ideas and all the language that was available to them before the poem began. That is, all language that hasn't been found by the language of the poem. And even then that new language should be doubted and resisted. Resistance leads to discovery. No, no, no, no, and then yes. The good poem offers us a compelling, vibrant replacement for what, in our complacency, we allowed ourselves to believe we knew and felt.

I've always admired this notion of resistance because it's too easy to surrender, not only to bad language, but also to resolutions of conflicts and paradoxes which might seem initially gratifying but, later, appear too neatly contrived to sustain any lasting resonances. And yes, the paradox disappears in a false reconciliation, but no one is happy. "When the compulsion of speech is to find and say the truth...all utterance must be tormented by doubt," Louise Glück advises us in her essay on T.S. Eliot: if we are preoccupied with truths, then we should also keep in mind their durable antitheses; too often, we are drawn toward the merely synthetic amalgamation.

In a general sense, we might say that Dunn's poetic preoccupation has been with oppositional forces and their effects on our lives. In much of his earlier work, his strategy has often been to find compromises between antithetical impulses and beliefs, even if they turn out to be temporary. For instance, in "Waiting with Two Members of a Motorcycle Gang for my Child to Be Born," (Full of Lust and Good Usage), the impending birth of his daughter about to refresh the world is set against the violence and danger that two gang members in the same hospital waiting room represent, though Dunn has a hope that one force will overcome the other:

      I expected "The Eliminators" to
         disappear, snuffed out
      by a stronger force, a white tornado
         of my own.
      That's not what happens, though
        in life
      as you will learn.

The life force and the destructive force remain at odds, but there is here a curious rapprochement between the two: "They smiled when/they heard of you/and shook my hand. At another time/it might/have been my head." We note a give and take, a coming together of sorts, however short-lived, symbolized by the handshake. Tolerance and human kinship win out for the time being.

Similarly, in "At the Smithville Methodist Church" (Local Time), there's a spirit of accommodation when the speaker's daughter comes home during a week of Arts and Crafts at the church singing "'Jesus loves me,/the Bible tells me so.'" The father is an ardent disbeliever and the time is ripe for a struggle between dissonant credos. Yet nothing happens. To his credit, the father understands that his daughter has been won over by a Biblical narrative whose power he cannot match: "[Evolution] stinks of extinction," he knows, "and nothing//exciting happens for centuries." His tacit hope is that his daughter's conversion may be temporary:

                                  I didn't have

      a wonderful story for my child
      and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
      she sang songs,

      occasionally standing up for Jesus.
      There was nothing to do
      but drive, ride it out, sing along
      in silence.

The opposition lingers, but we are nudged into thinking it might disappear in time. And we're also asked to recognize that the father's singing in silence despite his reservations signals another handshake, a momentary truce that brings the world a little more genially into our ken.

In "The Sudden Light and the Trees" (Landscape at the End of the Century), another speaker deals with a more immediate danger, a neighbor living in the same apartment house who is "a biker, a pusher, a dog/and wife beater." He also owns a pistol and wishes to use it on a sparrow that's been trapped in their common basement. The poem has a suspenseful edge, and we don't know how things will turn out until the speaker offers to catch the bird and set it free:

      ....I got it in my hand, and how it burst
        that hand open
      when I took it outside, a strength

      that must have come out of hopelessness
        and the sudden light
      and the trees.

The bad neighbor in this case, even though he seems still dangerous, nevertheless is subverted by a small act of kindness which in no way changes him—he keeps slapping his gun against his open palm—but perhaps bewilders, maybe even surprises him into benign inaction and silence.

The examples I've mentioned above are poems that bring antitheses together and chronicle the reverberations that ensue. Sometimes, they make a pact with "everything/strange, inchoate, like living/with someone/like living alone,/settling for the partial" ("Essay on the Personal"/Work and Love). Other times, they hold out for a kindlier world: "May you make men better than they are," the father in the hospital waiting room wishes for his new daughter, and the world, though it has its dangers, is also congenial and forgiving in many instances. Dunn, of course, has always been richly attentive to our immediate and domestic lives and the quiet but necessary negotiations we maintain to keep them intact. I would argue, however, that as he begins to include in his work larger political and historical considerations, he becomes more attuned to paradoxes that have no reconciliations, no halfway meeting of minds or compromises.

Such a politico-historical dimension makes its first conspicuous appearance in the final section of Between Angels (1989), and it's interesting to also note the slight shift in Dunn's compositional strategy because of it; we register how his inclination toward accommodation shrinks a little in light of the terrible but understandable reasons why people do bad things to each other. "To a Terrorist," for instance, written long before the Towers fell on 9/11, acknowledges that what we find hateful might nonetheless have its urgencies:

      For the historical ache, the ache passed down
      which finds its circumstance and becomes
      the present ache, I offer this poem

      without hope, knowing there's nothing,
      not even revenge which alleviates
      a life like yours.

Though there's an understanding of terrorist motives, Dunn nonetheless registers his moral indignation of their murderous calibrations: "Still, I must say to you:/I hate your good reasons./I hate the hatefulness that makes you fall//in love with death, your own included." There is, here, both a convergence, and a parting of ways, but no synthesis of positions, no adjustments to include what the speaker feels he must turn away from, and the poem exists not to be commodious but to register an act of resistance, to cancel silences. Similarly, in "About the Elk and the Coyotes that Killed Her Calf," the elk's fierce struggle against deadly attacks earns our admiration; we feel ourselves attached to her heroic but doomed courage. And yet, though we perhaps side with her for now, how easily, it seems, our affiliations might change:

        Ah, but tomorrow,
      desperate, and night falling fast

      and with a different sense of family...

Who can say what we are capable of in the right circumstances? How could we not wish to be as "wild" and "brilliant" as the cunning coyotes in times of extremity? And isn't it true, while we indict the torturers and hate-mongers of vicious crimes ("Forgiveness"), we "put out the poison" for any rat we wish to rid ourselves of, asking always forgiveness for our small but effective exterminations? We indict indecencies; and yet, often, our decent lives are flecked with blood.

This notion of irreconcilability leads us to Dunn's Riffs and Reciprocities, prose poems that are paired to play off, and in many ways, resist each other. They are unlikely couplings whose titles may give us only an elliptical sense of their mutual subversions: "Bourgeois/Religion"; "Sky/Weather"; "Luminescence/Seriousness." But there they are, praising on one hand the democratic principle of "one person, one vote," while arguing for a more judicious electoral public on the other; in league with lovers who are enviably in the full flush of love, but conceding the attraction of flirtation, dalliances without obligation; espousing "the cold light of intelligence" as well as the whimsical but seductive bewitchments of intuition; reason, and also the heart's reasons. That they are separated from each other both by page and predilection reinforces our sense of their discreteness, but their proximity to each other allows us to bounce back and forth, seeing how the same general subject matter may be approached in at least two different ways, the pairs swinging apart from each other like repelling magnets though nonetheless connected because of their antinomian nature.

One of the poems in his Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Different Hours, which elegantly exemplifies for me this idea of contrarieties is "The Reverse Side." The epigraph, a Japanese proverb, is instructive: The reverse side also has a reverse side. We enter the poem through its directive as if through a hall of mirrors, our mind's eye overwhelmed by innumerable reflections and their opposites. It's a poem that understands how we try to arrive at only one truth in order to excuse ourselves from the terror of considering multiple truths:

      It's why the terrified and the simple
      latch onto one story,
      just one version of the great mystery.

      Image & afterimage, oh even
      the open-minded yearn for a fiction
      to rein things in—
      the snapshot, the lie of the frame.

If there is only one version of truth, then its re-version is suppressed or dismissed; and if there is an unreciprocated "verse," then its uncreated "re-verse" is a failure of the imagination: though the poem may be shapely, its inattention to contrary positions destroys the raw, sometimes enlivening quality of disagreement. But here's the wrinkle: we hunger also for the great mystery of something that is not bilateral or binary, something that has yet to be spoken because speaking it would diminish its amplitude, its myriad contiguities:

      How do we not go crazy,
      we who have found ourselves compelled
      to live with the circle, the ellipsis, the word
      not yet written.

It is a proposition that finds attraction in the blank page, the unutterable, something which all poets must find compelling for the openness of the territory. Once something is said, its shadowy other appears, floating up out of the murkiness onto the available surfaces of our consciousness. Even as Dunn writes the poem, he half wishes it to disappear, creating, of course, another opposition. It's almost as though he concedes that language begets discrepancies, displacing us from the primary and intrinsic world of our first waking into one that seems linguistically invented. The more we refine language, the more we fall under its constructed thrall. Yet a withdrawal into silence is unconscionable for Dunn. As he has said in an early poem, "Those of Us Who Think We Know," (Full of Lust and Good Usage) "the words we find/are always insufficient, like love,/though they are often lovely/and all we have." Even though our compulsion to speak "out loud...[is] doomed to become mere words" ("To a Terrorist"), we are compelled to speak them because we can.

If our attraction is to many-sidedness, or in the circle's case, to no-sidedness, how then do we strategize to include all that we feel the subject matter compels us to include without the work becoming incoherent or unwieldy? In the poem, "Oklahoma City" (Different Hours), the triggering subject is Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, an event that killed 168 people, many of them children. A lesser poem might have offered initially to counteract the horror with instances of generous and compassionate acts that occurred subsequently, but Dunn's poem for the most part skirts accounts of the catastrophe and describes the more trivial event of a same-day cocktail party whose guests are more intent on each other's intersections than anything else:

      Not one of us wouldn't be smiling.
      There'd be drinks, irony, hidden animosities.
      Something large would be missing.

Dunn is well aware that to parrot moral platitudes about goodness and evil in dealing with such an upheaval is to diminish its enormity; we acknowledge the wisdom of the poem to resist iterating our complacent beliefs or allowing us to feel in a time of broken connections a comfortable sense of shared communitarian values. Of course we know that the beautiful and the bestial live in the same place, but our hope might be that if we did x, then y should follow, a logical construction whose integrity, we might feel, gives us influence over outcome. Dunn, however, will not subordinate one quality to another, and the poem's surprising, and perhaps liberating, syntactic and philosophic belief is in the ampersand:

      It's the naïve among us who are guilty
      of wondering if we're moral agents or madmen
      or merely, as one scientist said,
      a fortuitous collocation of atoms.
      Some mysteries can be solved by ampersands.
     Ands not ors; that was my latest answer.

What Dunn eschews here as a poetic aesthetic is the causal, hypotactic sentence in favor of a paratactic approach: clauses not subordinated, declarations of one form or another, significant ones, held in equal valuation to each other. The physicist, Niels Bohr, has famously said that the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. The danger of such a proposition is that nothing of value might be declared, no moral positions espoused, and life might revert to a random perpetration of actions without significance. Its dismissal, however, leads to the constriction of a large and open-minded perspective that is the foundation of any consequential thinking. When we are able to hold two mutually exclusive declarations together in our minds, connected only by an and without resolution or integration, without even any connection other than the syntactic, then we are on our way to salvation because we are ready for anything. And so is the poem, its capacious doorway able to admit all that it has felicitously discerned in the world beyond:

      At the party two women were talking

      about how strange it is that they still like men.
      They were young and unavailable, and their lovely faces
      evoked a world not wholly incongruent
      with the world I know. I had no illusions, not even hopes,
      that their beauty had anything to do with goodness.

Beauty to goodness, goodness to truth: it's a ladder to paradise and ideality whose rungs are not quite as obliging for us as they have been for other centuries. The oppositions are persistant, but they direct us more keenly to what we finally believe in. "How nice that so few of us count on the negatives/these days to preserve what we hold dear" the character, Hope, declares in "At The Nihilist's Funeral," (What Goes On), and of course, it is what Hope should say given her allegorical prescriptions, though she can't help but also confess its converse:

      I loved [the nihilist], in fact for years couldn't live
      without him, he who helped crystallize
      what I thought by being so opposed to it.

We might not be sure if Hope can continue to live so discretely without his presence, though the poem comes full circle when the nihilist mourners, by turning their backs on Hope in protest, enact "the kind of negation that [the nihilist].../would have thought might lead somewhere,/might even have thought was hopeful." The poem has managed to construct a merry-go-round of sorts, the uroboros of one truth eating another's tail and being eaten by it as well. Even within the circle we might find peculiarities, different dispositions.

It might have taken a wonderful and sustained poem like "Loves" in Landscape at the End of the Century for Dunn to openly declare without compromise and with a sense of joy: "Here is where loveliness can live with failure, and nothing's complete. I love how we go on." The inclusive gesture admits both qualities into our lives without settling on the partial or avowing "that nothing can be done but know/nothing can be done" ("Amidst the Faltering"/Work and Love); it prefers to celebrate how in spite of the fragmentary and incomplete character of the world, or maybe even because of it, we can choose to accept both sides of ourselves, recognizing our hates for what they are but able to love and be loved. The pivotal word here is "choose," and the choice that we make is underscored by our understanding of just what our choices are. It is important that our acts be substantiated by our knowledge of the world in all its circumstances, from the heroic to the monstrous, what Simone de Beauvoir, writing soon after the end of World War II, describes in The Ethics of Ambiguity as essential for our well-being:

There was Stalingrad and there was Buchenwald, and neither of the two wipes out the other. Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our life that we must draw our strength to live and our reason for acting.
If we can't change the world as often as we'd like by our speaking about its contradictions, then let's speak at least about our acts, and act with the knowledge of what our lives are based on, what, among the multitudes of directions, we have chosen existentially to follow. If we have to confront many declarations connected by ands, then that is our world, though it does not prevent us from acknowledging preferences. We can want the beautiful, or we can want the bestial. The choice is ours if we recognize it is a choice. Isn't that, finally, what most empowers us: the personal act coming from an examined life that might resonate outward to intersect with other lives, other choices? And isn't it the poet's obligation to make us aware of them, even if he has favorites, even if his final urgency is to "Praise whatever you can"?

The world is an ambiguous place, and to say yes to it is to live in a house whose doors and windows are open to all eventualities. It's not an easy house to live in, it's dangerous and unprotected, but it's a house the more courageous of our poets must inhabit if everyone is to be invited in, and it's a house, I think, that Stephen Dunn has lived in most of his life: like the speaker in "Clarities" in Between Angels, he has lived under all kinds of weather and without assurances:

      The weatherman said cold air
         coming in
      from Pennsylvania. He said sleet

      then snow then clearing then—
        speaking to me—days of
      Once again there seemed room for me

      in the world.


Stephen Dunn
5 New Poems

Book Review

David Rigsbee reviews
Stephen Dunn's new book
Here and Now


Stephen Dunn

Poets in Person:
Stephen Dunn