(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Stephen Dunn prefaces this collection with three epigraphs, each of which testifies in some way to the ambiguity which lies at the heart of all human relationships, perhaps even at the heart of all human beings themselves. The line from Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, for example, “To pretend is to know oneself,” suggests that humans’ belief that they are composed of a single self to which they might be true is only a fiction; instead they may have as many selves as they have masks; in fact, their masks may be their only selves.

The emblem is reinforced by the first poem, “A Bowl of Fruit,” which introduces the volume’s three sections. In it, the speaker offers a reader, Jeanne, a bowl of fruit, stressing the care with which he has arranged the various quinces, apples, bananas, and kiwis. He imagines the recipient wondering whether one of the fruits contains a worm, whether the wormhole has been artfully concealed by the arranger. Only biting into the fruit will reveal the truth. If she takes the test and finds a worm, the speaker says, Jeanne will see how a work of art, the still life, may inject itself into real life and deny the distance usually seen between life and art. The poem concludes with the ironic reminder that this fruit bowl is itself a fiction; it contains neither fruit nor worms, just words.

The figure of Sisyphus dominates the first part of the volume. In myth, Sisyphus represents futile effort as he endures the punishment which the gods have placed on him, ever laboriously to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down so that he must eternally repeat his meaningless task. In these poems, Sisyphus is living in the contemporary world, and the futility of its daily tasks has become the stone he pushes. That state of things is the subject of “Sisyphus’s Acceptance,” in which the modern Sisyphus, his rock now invisible, goes through the motions of modern life—buys a bagel at the coffee shop and watches the evening news. The gods allow him these things, it turns out, because such reminders of normalcy increase his pain. Sisyphus, however, has his own weapon, the smile which signals his acceptance of his fate; it is like the smile “a gambler smiles/ when he finally decides to fold/ in order to stay alive/for another game.” That secret smile of acceptance becomes a sort of bitter triumph, and the gods know that it means their victim has somehow beaten them.

Dunn offers another way of considering Sisyphus’s torment in “Sisyphus and the Sudden Lightness,” in which Sisyphus recognizes that the gods have left. That accounts for the lightness he feels, a lightness which frightens him because he has come to define himself by his burden. If the gods have departed, Sisyphus’s world has been stripped of its only source of meaning—the anger of the gods—leaving Sisyphus with only terror.

“Sisyphus in the Suburbs” pictures Sisyphus as an aging householder, marking time while his wife vacations in Bermuda with her sister. He listens to music from his youth and recognizes that since the gods have left, nothing really occupies his mind. His earlier thoughts of suicide have long gone, and in fact, nothing is very important to him, not even his absent wife. He plans a trip to the mall to buy a present for her return, but he knows that nothing he can buy will truly satisfy his need, or hers.

Although the other poems in this section do not mention Sisyphus by name, they deal with his world, a world which has often been the subject of Dunn’s poetry, where ordinary people recognize the limitations of their understandings and desires. In “Knowledge,” for instance, the speaker suggests that the world may become “more mysterious, not less,/ the more we know.” The speaker notes some things which seem mysterious to children but goes on to remind the reader that adults are sometimes at pains to disguise the wonder they feel. He considers the phrase “God knows . . .,” the phrase often used to introduce a comment about the unknowable, concluding at last that “God knows nothing we don’t know.” People have invested God with all the knowledge which they suppose God has.

People’s knowledge, of course, is filtered through their limited understandings, limitations illustrated by Dunn’s playfully...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)