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Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn is the author of sixteen books of poems, including the recently released Here and Now and What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009. His Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. He is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College and lives in Frostburg, Maryland.

Giving Birth

At my favorite professor's dinner party,
years ago, I gave birth

to what I thought was a new idea,

and the room got quiet
with tolerance. I still hear that tolerance.

If a Clown

If a clown came out of the woods,
a standard looking clown with oversized
polkadot clothes, floppy shoes,
a red, bulbous nose, and you saw him
on the edge of your property,
there'd be nothing funny about that,
would there? A bear might be preferable,
especially if black and berry-driven.
And if this clown began waving his hands
with those big, white gloves
that clowns wear, and you realized
he wanted your attention, had something
apparently urgent to tell you,
would you pivot and run from him,
or stay put, as my friend did, who seemed
to understand here was a clown
who didn't know where he was,
a clown without a context.
What could be sadder, my friend thought,
than a clown in need of a context?
If then the clown said to you
that he was on his way to a kid's
birthday party, his car had broken down,
and he needed a ride, would you give
him one? Or would the connection
between the comic and the appalling,
as it pertained to clowns, be suddenly so clear
that you'd be paralyzed by it?
And if you were the clown, and my friend
hesitated, as he did, would you make
a sad face, and with an enormous finger
wipe away an imaginary tear? How far
would you trust your art? I can tell you
it worked. Most of the guests had gone
when my friend and the clown drove up,
and the family was angry. But the clown
twisted a balloon into the shape of a bird
and gave it to the kid, who smiled,
letting it rise to the ceiling. If you were the kid,
the birthday boy, what from then on
would be your relationship with disappointment?
With joy? Whom would you blame or extol?


Found dead in an alley
of words: awesome,
no hope for it, and share,
which must have fallen
trying to get by on its own,
and near the trash cans,
almost totally exhausted,
the barely breathing cool.

But there's love
among the disposables,
waiting, as ever,
to be lifted
into consequence.

And here comes a forager
looking for anything
that might get him
through another night.
Love's right in front
of him, his if he wants it.

In the air
the ashy smell of cliches,
the stink of obsolescence.
He's leaning love's way.

All the words are watching,
even the dead ones. It's as if
what he does next
could be the equivalent
of restoring awe to awesome —

that love, if chosen,
might be given back to love,
made new again.

But the man is just a man
out for easy pickings.
Or has he just remembered
how, early on, love
always feels original?

Let us forgive him
if he keeps on foraging.

Talk to God

Thank him for your little house
on the periphery, its splendid view
of the wildflowers in summer,
and the nervous, forked prints of deer
in that same field after a snowstorm.
Thank him even for the monotony
that drives us to make and destroy
and dissect what would otherwise be
merely the lush, unnamed world.
Ease into your misgivings.
Ask him if in his weakness
he was ever responsible
for a pettiness — some weather, say,
brought in to show who's boss
when no one seemed sufficiently moved
by a sunset, or the shape of an egg.
Ask him if when he gave us desire
he had underestimated its power.
And when, if ever, did he realize
love is not inspired by obedience?
Be respectful when you confess to him
you began to redefine heaven
as you discovered certain pleasures.
And sympathize with how sad it is
that awe has been replaced
by small enthusiasms, that you're aware
things just aren't the same these days,
that you wish for him a few evenings
surrounded by the old, stunned silence.
Maybe it will be possible then
to ask, Why this sorry state of affairs?
Why — after so much hatefulness
done in his name - no list of corrections
nailed to some rectory door?
Remember to thank him for the silkworm,
apples in season, photosynthesis,
the northern lights. And be sincere.
But let it be known you're willing to suffer
only in proportion to your errors,
not one unfair moment more.
Insist on this as if it could be granted:
Not one moment more.


The narcissists, as ever, were rhyming themselves
with themselves, while a few houses away,
a man with a certain urgency, but with no
philosophical position on the matter,
wanted early morning sex

more than did his wife. She wasn't a prude.
She just liked to be wooed
before being pinned down, wanted her eyes
more than half open, didn't want
to feel like some opening act.

It was clear an ape lived somewhere
in the man's past, and could — at the right time —
be seen in the woman's behavior, too,
though the DNA of those small, fuck-crazy-
anytime-any-which-way bonobos monkeys

had been civilized out of her, or so it seemed.
Otherwise, she had efficient opposable thumbs,
and a desire to please him when she wasn't awakened
by a pressing issue not hers. One day the narcissists
dropped by uninvited just after dinner to offer

the importance of their presence. The man and woman
had been talking, taking turns, as it were, about why
she preferred something else to the Anglo-Saxon words
he used as a way of further arousing her into wakefulness.
They allowed their visitors to overhear the act

of thinking inside and outside a subject, because, after all,
the subject was intrusion, its niceties and violations,
and their neighbors were part of it now,
who had come wishing to communicate —that big word
certain people use who have no gift for it.

The Imagined

If the imagined woman makes the real woman
seem bare-boned, hardly existent, lacking in
gracefulnesss and intellect and pulchritude,
and if you come to realize the imagined woman
can only satisfy your imagination, whereas
the real woman with all her limitations
can often make you feel good, how, in spite
of knowing this, does the imagined woman
keep getting into your bedroom, and joining you
at dinner, why is it that you always bring her along
on vacations when the real woman is shopping,
or figuring the best way to the museum?

And if the real woman

has an imagined man, as she must, someone
probably with her at this very moment, in fact
doing and saying everything she's ever wanted,
would you want to know that he slips in
to her life every day from a secret doorway
she's made for him, that he's present even when
you're eating your omelette at breakfast,
or do you prefer how she goes about the house
as she does, as if there were just the two of you?
Isn't her silence, finally, loving? And yours
not entirely self-serving? Hasn't the time come,

once again, not to talk about it?


If a lone feather fell from the sky,
like a paper plane wafting down
from a tree house where a quiet boy
has been known to hide,
you might think message or perhaps
mischief, not just some mid-air
molting of a bird.
But what if many feathers fell
from a place seemingly higher
than any boy could ever climb,
beyond the top of Savage Mountain
and obscured by clouds,
what might you think then?
A flock of birds smithereened
by hunters? By a jet?
And let's say the feathers were large
and grayish, some of them bloody,
with signs of tendon and muscle
broken off, would you worry about
a resurgence of enormous raptors
only the Air Force knew about,
and had decided to destroy?
For years you've heard rumors
of homeless gods in the vast emptiness.
And if they would appear in your dreams,
as sometimes they did,
begging to be believed in once again,
you'd feel this icy refusal hardening in you.
And when you woke you'd feel it, too.
Your better self wished to believe
the feathers signaled a parade, an occasion
of a triumph, and what was falling
might be a new kind of confetti,
but what was there to celebrate?
Was the world, as you knew it, simply over,
no more rain or snow? Would there always be
just this strange detritus coming down,
covering what used to be the ground?


My wife is working in her room,
writing, and I've come in three times
with idle chatter, some no-new news.
The fourth time she identifies me
as what I am, a man lost
in late afternoon, in the terrible
in between - good work long over,
a good drink not yet
what the clock has okayed.
Her mood: a little bemused —
mixed with a weary smile,
and I see my face
up on the Post Office wall
among Men Least Wanted,
looking forlorn. In the small print
under my name: Annoying
to loved ones in the afternoons,
lacks inner resources.
I go away, guilty as charged,
and write this poem, which I insist
she read at drinking time.
She's reading it now. It seems
she's pleased, but when she speaks
it's about charm, and how predictable
I am - how, when in trouble
I try to become irresistible
like one of those blond dogs
with a red bandanna around his neck,
sorry he's peed on the rug.
Forget it, she says, this stuff
is old, it won't work anymore,
and I hear Good boy, Good boy,
and can't stop licking her hand.

Don't Do That

It was bring-your-own if you wanted anything
hard, so I brought Johnnie Walker Red
along with some resentment I'd held in
for a few weeks, which was not helped
by the sight of little nameless things
pierced with toothpicks on the tables,
or by talk that promised to be nothing
if not small. But I'd consented to come,
and I knew in what part of the house
their animals would be sequestered,
whose company I loved. What else can I say,

except that old retainer of slights and wrongs,
that bad boy I hadn't quite outgrown —
I'd brought him along too. I was out
to cultivate a mood. My hosts greeted me,
but did not ask about my soul, which was when
I was invited by Johnnie Walker Red
to find the right kind of glass, and pour.
I toasted the air. I said hello to the wall,
then walked past a group of women
dressed to be seen, undressing them
one by one, and went up the stairs to where

the Rottweilers were, Rosie and Tom,
and got down with them on all fours.
They licked the face I offered them,
and I proceeded to slick back my hair
with their saliva, and before long
I felt like a wild thing, ready to mess up
the party, scarf the hors d'oeuveres.
But the dogs said, No, don't do that,
calm down, after a while they open the door
and let you out, they pet your head, and everything
you might have held against them is gone,
and you're good friends again. Stay, they said.


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