Everything Else in the World
Stephen Dunn’s Everything Else in the World asserts the sensibility of a man as fascinated by the world’s ambiguities as those within his heart. To explore those simultaneities, Dunn makes a theme of desire, forcing his readers to rethink its implications in ontology, propriety, art, marriage, love, and more. Throughout the book Dunn works in his trademark voice: avoiding the vatic, attending to idiom, and articulating the subtlest nuances of emotion. Likewise, he thinks in his typical Hegelian fashion: offering an idea, suggesting its counterpoint, and then beginning again from the resultant synthesis. Consequently, the infrastructure for each of this book’s thirty-eight poems will read as aesthetically and intellectually familiar to Dunn’s long-time readers, who will be both surprised and delighted by the strikingly unprecedented, impassioned, and extended use of love poetry.
Comprising the final section of this polished, tripartite book, the love poetry achieves a newfound intensity and complexity for Dunn. Certainly his previous books include a variety of exquisite, individual love poems, such as “Juarez” in The Insistence of Beauty (2004) and “Instead of You” in A Circus of Needs (1978). Similarly, his sinuous, supple long poem “Loves,” from Landscape at the End of the Century (1991), modulates variations on forms of love into a cohesive, extensive catalog of love’s myriad manifestations in the speaker’s life. In Everything Else in the World, though, the thirteen-poem investigation of love combines desire with tenacity to form a sustained, transformative experience for the reader.
This new love poetry forces the reader to engage a novel network of considerations, thereby creating a new landscape of amorous thought and feeling. Strategically, this new landscape begins modestly, with a set of three conventional love poems about a speaker’s amorous infatuation with his beloved. The first of those poems, “Infatuation,” introduces love as an irrational, irresistible power capable of overwhelming even the wiliest, most experienced connoisseurs of romance. Dunn then inflects that universal, inevitable helplessness with the section’s second poem, “The Kiss,” which bursts with sensual rhythm and metaphor. In other words “The Kiss” makes physical the emotion of “Infatuation,” and the combined effect of the two poems is very moving synesthetically.
However, Dunn revokes that conjured pleasure from the reader by making its absence the subject of the third poem, “Summer Nocturne.” A lyrical paean to an absent beloved, the poem is a lamentation on loneliness, with the speaker pitying his isolation before recognizing within it his beloved’s indelible presence. That epiphany enlivens him such that he even departs from the poem, which concludes in an abridged final stanza. More precisely, the first three stanzas are each five lines of despair, but the final stanza concludes contentedly after three. Thus, within the section’s first three poems Dunn has masterfully titillated his readers by presenting them with an ardent love, concentrating it erotically into a kiss, and then snatching it awayonly to return it at the last moment, and then disappear with it again.
Following “Summer Nocturne,” the network of love poems takes an abrupt, radical turn with the poem “Bad Plants.” An exploration of plant names as metaphors for human behavior, the poem investigates and blurs the divide between socially acceptable and socially objectionable forms of desire. Ultimately the latter prevails, and Dunn concludes with irreverent praise for followers of love’s imperatives, however seemingly selfish and destructive the consequences. Thus the poem exhorts its readers to liberate their hearts recklessly from fears of mortality and propriety, and the poem’s linguistic play is as pleasurable and potent as it is precise.
Where “Bad Plants” celebrates impulsive behavior, the subsequent poem, “The Slow Surge,” honors patience, particularly its potential to extend precious moments of postcoital bliss. Here the rhythm of the poetry slows to a leisurely pace, and the heavily end-stopped lines imbue the poem with stability and strength. Thus Dunn elegantly invites his readers into the private, calm pleasure, though its consequences will prove confoundingly complex.
The complexity of amorous entanglement is exemplified in the subsequent poem, “At His House,” which presents a fraternal relationship between two presumably older men who have forfeited intimacy in their respective love lives from a fear of openness with...
(The entire section is 1903 words.)