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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poetry Chronicle

The speaker of Dunn’s recent poems is a regular guy cursed with an understanding of human nature more subtle than he’d prefer. A poem like “The Unsaid” succeeds not only because it nails its depiction of a couple stalled by miscommunication and reproach — “In the bedroom they undressed and dressed / and got into bed. The silence was what fills / a tunnel after a locomotive passes through” — but because the poem’s very existence squares its pathos: the speaker understands the problem perfectly but still can’t solve it. A typical Dunn poem opens up a basic human trouble — a body souring with age, a marriage souring with regret, a believer souring with doubt — meditates on it with equal parts seriousness and good humor, and finally offers not quite consolation but acceptance, a sense of having gained some measure of dignity simply by looking life in the eye. As is true of every other poet who ever lived, what’s best about Dunn is also what’s worst: in his case, a plainspoken, curlicue-­free lucidity (I actually want to say “wisdom,” but fear it makes Dunn sound square or folksy, faults he’s too sharp and wry to be accused of), which is a tonic in small doses but can cause numbness if consumed in quantity. “Please Understand” ends “I’ve never been able to tell / what’s worth more — what I want or what I have.” “What Men Want” ends “After the power to choose / a man wants the power to erase.” “Nature” ends, “Gray, then, was the only truth in the world.” I trust the poet’s every nuanced ambivalence but eventually find myself wishing — against my better instincts, and his — that he’d burn a house down or get baptized or anything else definitive and audacious.....


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