A disarming directness and simplicity of line characterizes the works of Stephen Dunn, as befits a poetry that quietly celebrates middle-class American domestic life. His works evoke household matters and sexual love, against the counter-theme of the discovery of personal emptiness. Dunn, or the speaker of his poems, seems to discover this emptiness both in and outside himself.
These concerns are least apparent in Dunn’s early poems, where his cleverness and humor come to the fore. In “How to Be Happy: Another Memo to Myself,” which appeared in Looking for Holes in the Ceiling, he lets ideas lead him along loosely connected thoughts, from this beginning: “You start with your own body/ then move outward, but not too far./ Never try to please a city, for example.” The prose-like lines convey the sense of a man talking himself into charting a purely sensible course in life. Near the end, advice appears that Dunn seems to follow in later works: “Remember, finally, there are few pleasures/ that aren’t as local as your fingertips./ Never go to Europe for a cathedral.” The poem’s overall tone is of one who has insights to share, even if the insights repeatedly return to the mundane.
From early in his career, Dunn’s poems show a poet well centered within his own body. “Truck Stop: Minnesota” contains the line that gave his 1976 collection its name: Full of Lust and Good Usage. The poem offers a revery on a waitress at the truck stop, who provokes Dunn’s desire and “. . . is the America I would like to love./ Sweetheart, the truckers call her.” The physicality of Dunn’s desire stands in contrast to his being “lost here” in a place where his “good usage” itself seems out of place.
A litany similar to that in “How to Be Happy,” which seems to keep turning inward, appears in “Introduction to the Twentieth Century,” from A Circus of Needs: “. . . And for every death/ there was a building or a poem. For every/ lame god a rhythm and a hunch, something local/ we could possibly trust. . . .” He describes setting down history books that have chronicled the century’s horrors, and concludes: “In difficult times, we came to understand,/ it’s the personal and only the personal that matters.” In this poem, Dunn states what seems to be a declaration of belief, which will prove of significance in his later work.
In Not Dancing, Dunn’s poems increasingly raise doubts about life and art, uncovering the difficulties to be encountered when pursuing a purely sensible course in life. In “Essay on the Personal,” which begins with lines that reiterate that “. . . the personal/ is all that matters,” he describes how emphasis on artistic precision has not prepared him for what life has brought him, particularly when dealing emotionally with his parents. Now he perceives that “. . . What seemed so deep/ begins to seem naïve . . .” and laments being “. . . left with style, a particular/ way of standing and saying.”
Dunn directly addresses the issue of his parents in “Legacy,” a longer poem that he dedicates to his father, who gambled away his savings at the racing track. The poem recalls the quietness of the unhappy family: “Nights he’d come home drunk/ mother would cook his food/ and there’d be silence./ Thus, for years, I thought/ all arguments were silent. . . .”
Although games of chance brought disaster to his parents, they assume a place of importance in Dunn’s poems in Different Hours, as in “Another Man.” The element of poignancy and regret introduced in his works of the 1980’s also becomes a common ingredient in this volume. Many of Dunn’s tendencies received summation in Different Hours, with...
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