“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.

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