Stephen Dunn is a celebrity in my house. I quote him all the time on this blog. If I write a passive aggressive this is meant to burn someone Facebook post, I do it with poetry — usually, that means Dunn’s poetry. He’s as famous to me as David Sedaris or Stephen King, which means he’s as notorious as James Cameron or Peter Jackson to a normal person who doesn’t douse their life with literature.
I started reading his work in college, but I don’t know how I found it. Different Hours was published in 2000 and helped him win the Pullitzer in 2001, so it wasn’t like he was obscure and hidden in some dark library when I opened my paperback copy of that book around 2005. Most likely, I probably picked it up on a whim at Barnes & Noble while I strolled through the book aisles with a cup of chai tea. In those days, I spent my free time combing through books and writing poetry with my friend in-between shots of Herradura in the smoky bar across Hillsborough street.
Two poems from that book, Different Hours, are burned in my brain (and on my skin). The first time I read “John & Mary” I was very much alone in the world trying to find my person, and knew what it felt like to keep skipping past my other half.
John & Mary
“John & Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who also had never met.”
— from a freshman’s short story.
They were like gazelles who occupied different
grassy plains, running in opposite directions
from different lions. They were like postal clerks
in different zip codes, with different vacation time,
their bosses adamant and clock-driven.
How could they get together?
They were like two people who couldn’t get together.
John was a Sufi with a love of the dervish,
Mary of course a Christian with a curfew.
They were like two dolphins in the immensity
of the Atlantic, one playful,
the other stuck in a tuna net—
two absolutely different childhoods!
There was simply no hope for them.
They would never speak in person.
When they ran across that windswept field
toward each other, they were like two freight trains,
one having left Seattle at 6:36 p.m.
at an unknown speed, the other delayed
in Topeka for repairs.
The math indicated that they’d embrace
in another world, if at all, like parallel lines.
Or merely appear kindred and close, like stars.
When I revisited that poem after Tim died, I didn’t feel like a struggling person in the world trying to find their soulmate against all odds. Instead, I knew the loneliness of having that connection broken. “John & Mary” is genuinely a funny poem, but the last line is the best description I have found of what my relationship with Tim feels like now. Knowing my husband after his death provided in some ways a better clarity than when he was alive. We are closer than ever, but there are realms and mysteries and galaxies between us.
The other poem twenty-year-old Lauren loved was, A Postmortem Guide. Always one to bend a little towards the macabre, I thought I identified with the narrator in this work.
A Postmortem Guide
For my eulogist, in advance
Do not praise me for my exceptional serenity.
Can’t you see I’ve turned away
from the large excitements,
and have accepted all the troubles?
Go down to the old cemetery; you’ll see
there’s nothing definitive to be said.
The dead once were all kinds—
boundary breakers and scalawags,
martyrs of the flesh, and so many
dumb bunnies of duty, unbearably nice.
I’ve been a little of each.
And, please, resist the temptation
of speaking about virtue.
The seldom-tempted are too fond
of that word, the small-
spirited, the unburdened.
Know that I’ve admired in others
only the fraught straining
to be good.
Adam’s my man and Eve’s not to blame.
He bit in; it made no sense to stop.
Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say
I oftened stopped,
that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.
And since you know my hardships,
understand that they’re mere bump and setback
against history’s horror.
Remind those seated, perhaps weeping,
how obscene it is
for some of us to complain.
Tell them I had second chances.
I knew joy.
I was burned by books early
and kept sidling up to the flame.
Tell them that at the end I had no need
for God, who’d become just a story
I once loved, one of many
with concealments and late-night rescues,
high sentence and pomp. The truth is
I learned to live without hope
as well as I could, almost happily,
in the despoiled and radiant now.
You who are one of them, say that I loved
my companions most of all.
In all sincerity, say that they provided
a better way to be alone.
It wasn’t until I lost Tim that I realized that this wasn’t a poem about my life – it was one about his. I printed “A Postmortem Guide” in the pamphlet I made for Tim’s memorial. In fact, I think it was the only text I put on the printout besides Tim’s name and dates. Even as I did it, I thought that some people would be shocked by the words. It’s not a poem about the tranquility of heaven or the peace someone finds through passing. It’s about the complexities of the human nature and though we walk beside our loved ones, the path we take is deeply solitary.
I force all this poetry down your throat today, because I got the opportunity to attend Stephen Dunn’s reading last Friday. He’s 78 years old now, and walks precariously with a cane. His face is thinner than his photo in the back of the book I love so much. I went to the reading because I’d always wanted to meet this man, and listen to see if he spoke the words how I imagined.
During the reading Stephen said he’s been described as an honest poet. “I’m honest by making things up,” he countered. As I sat there and listened to his work, I could understand how people think he’s honest. He writes without overly flowerly language, and he doesn’t shy away from the darkness of humanity.
I would describe Stephen as an honest poet, but I would mostly say he’s a romantic. The poems he read, in my mind, were love poems. He spoke about his wife in-between them. He read a piece he specifically said was a love poem to his wife, and in that work the narrator describes him and his wife lying in bed waiting for the world to end — but not being upset about whatever could come.
The ending, a visual of storm clouds brewing outside and not being afraid, stabbed me when I heard it. That is the thing I’m jealous of in other relationships now. It’s not about having someone to eat dinner with or have sex with or travel with, but being with the person you trust to go out of this world with. I was that for Tim, but there is no one for me.
And that’s why I love poetry and writing and words. They describe the things we don’t know we’re feeling, and bring us to places we can’t get to on our own.
After the reading, I bought a few of his books I didn’t have and took my worn out copy of Different Hours for Stephen to sign. I rolled up the sleeve of my right arm, and showed him my tattoo. He paused for a second to process, before a grin spread through his face and a deep belly laugh filled the small space between us. I smiled too.
“Thank you for the reading tonight,” I said. “It was a pleasure.”
And it was.