Dunn’s “The Snowmass Cycle”

Dunn’s series of poems “The Snowmass Cycle” is my favorite poem of the more recent poems inNew and Selected Poems 1974-1994 though it’s particular lines, rather than whole passages that seem to strike home.


The sailor dreamt of loss,
but it was I who dreamt the sailor.
I was landlocked, sea-poor.
The sailor dreamt of a woman
who stared at the sea, then tired
of it, advertised her freedom.
She said to her friend: I want
all the fire one can have
without being consumed by it.
Clearly, I dreamt the woman too.
I was surrounded by mountains
suddenly green after a long winter,
a chosen uprootedness, soul shake-up,
every day a lesson about the vastness
between ecstasy and repose.
I drank coffee called Black Forest
at the local cafe. I took long walks
and tried to love the earth
and hate its desecrations.
All the Golden Retrievers wore red
bandannas on those muttless streets.
All the birches, I think, were aspens.
I do not often remember my dreams,
or dream of dreamers in them.
To be without some of the things
you want, a wise man said,
is an indispensable part of happiness.

This first poem in the sequence establishes the setting for the sequence, a high-priced resort town in Colorado, perhaps reinforced by these lines from the second poem in the sequence: “Here in this rented house,/ high up, I understand./ I’m one of the rich for awhile.” It’s the kind of place rich people go for “a soul shake-up,” and who can blame them. It’s a yuppie paradise, a real Rocky Mountain High, only slightly despoiled by Golden Retrievers wearing red bandannas. Still, such places can be too rich for some people’s taste, mine for instance.

No doubt about it, “To be without some of the things/ you want, a wise man said,/ is an indispensable part of happiness.”

These last lines struck ancient chords, leading back to these lines from Carl Sandburg’s “father-to-son”

A tough will counts. So does desire.
So does a rich soft wanting.
Without rich wanting nothing arrives.
Tell him too much money has killed men
And left them dead years before burial
The quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs
Has twisted good enough men
Sometimes into dry thwarted worms.

which struck me as right on even when I read them in college many years ago, and nothing has happened in my life to make them ring false.

Dunn’s “Parable of the Fictionist”

Although nothing I can say about


He wanted to own his own past,
be able to manage it
more than it managed him.
He wanted all the unfair
advantages of the charmed.
He selected his childhood,
told only those stories
that mixed loneliness with
rebellion, a boy’s locked heart
with the wildness
allowed inside a playing field.
And after he invented himself
and those he wished to know him
knew him as he wished to be known,
he turned toward the world
with the world that was within him
and shapes resulted, versions,
In his leisure he invented women,
then spoke to them about
his inventions, the wish just
slightly ahead of the truth,
making it possible.
All around him he heard
the unforgivable stories
of the sincere, the boring,
and knew his way was righteous,
though in the evenings, alone
with the world he’d created,
he sometimes longed
for what he’d dare not alter,
or couldn’t, something immutable
or so lovely he might be changed
by it, nameless but with a name
he feared waits until you’re worthy,
then chooses you.

is nearly as enlightening as Dunn’s own commentary called A riff on refuge, it’s one of my favorites of the poems included from Local Time and Between Angels and represents one of the major themes in this section, echoing a theme from the long poem “Round Trip,” which contains the lines, “Later, I’m thinking, each of us/ will have a story to tell/ about the bay and the ships./ We’ll leave out all we can,/ all that is a traveler’s life/ or a sailor’s life. We’ll make our friends/wish they were us, we’ll replace experience/ with what we say.”

Anyone who maintains a blog, is to some extent a “fictionist.” Otherwise they’d be unable to attract readers. Perhaps the very act of writing creates a fiction because it requires us to select details to represent our life. If one selects the positive details, as I tend to do, life will seem more enjoyable and exciting than it is. If one selects the negative details, which is not uncommon, life will appear more dramatic, and certainly less boring, than it may really be.

The concept wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, though, if all of us weren’t guilty of it to some degree. The everyday act of “putting your best face forward” (Google that) creates a “fictional” character, one we create because we hope it will help us to do better than we might otherwise do, especially with those of the opposite sex, since it makes us seem more interesting than “the sincere, the boring.”

The danger is that this fictional self ensures our relationships can never be “real,” and we can end up longing for “what he’d dare not alter,/ or couldn’t, something immutable/ or so lovely he might be changed/ by it”.

“With No Experience in Such Matters”

I’m not sure if something happened to Stephen Dunn between 1978 and 1981 to change his view of life, but I do know that I found myself liking this poetry much more than his earlier poems. I found myself marking poem after poem to come back to, unlike the first pages of this collection.

I found this poem particularly moving, perhaps because it is sandwiched between poems about his mother’s and father’s death:


To hold a damaged sparrow
under water until you feel it die
is to know a small something
about the mind; how, for example,
it blames the cat for the original crime,
how it wants praise for its better side.

And yet it’s as human
as pulling the plug on your Dad
whose world has turned
to feces and fog, human as–
Well, let’s admit, it’s a mild thing
as human things go.

But I felt the one good wing
flutter in my palm–
the smallest protest, if that’s what it was,
I ever felt or heard.
Reminded me of how my eyelid has twitched,
the need to account for it.
Hard to believe no one notices.

Perhaps what makes the poem so poignant is the second stanza, where he puts the act into “human” perspective. I’ve had to make the decision on whether or not to “pull the plug” on a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but I would still hate to have to drown a small bird with a broken wing. Thank goodness.

I don’t want to ever reach the point in my life where taking the life of some innocent creature comes easy, even when it’s easy to rationalize the action. Anyone who’s ever had to put a pet to sleep will recognize the power of this poem.

No wonder we all have psychological twitches, scars from past actions, that seem to stand out to us even though no one else seems to recognize them.

Stephen Dunn’s “Here and There”

I’m not sure which of you You, though I’m postive Whiskey River was one of several, led me to order Stephen Dunn’s New and Selected Poems 1974-1994 awhile ago, but I have finally started reading it.

So far I’ve managed to be annoyed by the fact that all the new poems are in the first section, and for some reason I failed to realize that before I finished the section (of course, this is just a personal peeve), but I’ve read his poems from 1974 to 1981 and only found two poems that I’ve really connected to. Luckily, having read the first section, I know that the poetry does get better at some point.

Here’s the one I probably like best so far:

Here and There

Here and there nightfall
without fanfare
presses down, utterly
expected, not an omen in sight.
Here and there a husband
at the usual time
goes to bed with his wife
and doesn’t dream of other women.
Occasionally a terrible sigh
is heard, the kind that is
theatrical, to be ignored.
Or a car backfires
and reminds us of a car
backfiring, not of a gunshot.
Here and there a man says
what he means and people hear him
and are not confused.
Here and there a missing teenage girl
comes home unscarred.
Sometimes dawn just brings another
day, full of minor
pleasures and small complaints.
And when the newspaper arrives
with the world,
people make kindling of it
and sit together while it burns.

The fact that it’s on Garrison Keillor’s site probably says more about the poem than anything I’m going to say here, but it does dovetail with a point I’ve made here before. Most of our lives are not nearly as traumatic as the newspapers would have us believe. In fact, if we’d turn off the news and make kindling out of the newspaper, we’d probably have a much more optimistic view of our own lives.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) I seldom dream of women at all nowadays. Unfortunately, since Vietnam, I’m unable to sleep through gunshots at night and even in my upper middle class neighborhood I’m too often awakened by gunfire, not a car backfiring.

But truthfully, even at my age most of my days are “full of minor/ pleasures and small complaints,” and that’s the way I like it.