The Hours and the times

Sampling the work of Stephen Dunn, this year's Pulitzer-winning poet

Stephen Dunn, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry, writes jeremiads--poems that play on the truth that we can't have what we want, or we don't want what we get, or we don't understand what we are getting. Consider "Privilege," included in the collection New and Selected Poems 1974-1994, in which Dunn laments: "Today the odor of lilacs outside/ my window/ is half perfume, half something rotten./ That's just how they smell/ and what I'm used to,/ one thing and always the disturbing/ insistence of another, fat life itself,/ too much/ to let in, too much to turn away." New and Selected's "Update" concludes bitterly: "It's the end of the century;/ almost everyone dreams of money or revenge."

Dunn's poems also reflect on shifting perspective. One poem from the 1994 anthology, "About the Elk and the Coyotes That Killed Her Calf," describes the "futile resistance" of a mother elk trying to protect her calf from predators "who know it's just a matter of time." In the mother's struggle "we recognize something to admire" but feel the pull of both sides. We see "the brilliant, wild/ cunning of the coyotes. . . . Some part of us we'd like to believe is essentially us, sides with the elk./ Ah, but tomorrow,/ desperate, and night falling fast/ and with a different sense of family. . . ."

Dunn's writing has its humorous moments too, particularly in Different Hours, the volume for which he was awarded the Pulitzer. In "After," he describes Jack and Jill "at home together after their fall" with "the arduous evenings ahead of them." "Our mistake was trying to do something together,/ Jill sighs." The poet also plays neatly with meanings and clichés, giving sudden weight to the hackneyed. In Hours' "Dog Weather," he refers to his dead parents: "They're lost without us." Upon receiving his American Association of Retired Persons card, he remarks: "I can be discounted now almost anywhere."

These poems, although thoughtful, require no hard work to grasp. Even their form is uncomplicated: free verse, short lines, often with stanzas lasting only two or three lines. The tone is above all honest, unadorned, in some cases as harshly critical of human turpitude as was the prophet Jeremiah. Dunn's poems, like those of Philip Larkin and A.E. Housman, will not cheer you up, but they do offer a ballast, a wistfulness, some manageable rage, and some wry amusement. Dunn is not guilty of, as Housman wrote, looking "into the pewter pot/ To see the world as the world's not."

Joyce S. Brown writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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