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Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn is the author of fifteen books of poetry, including the recent What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009. His Different Hours was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Norton will publish his new collection Here and Now in 2011. He is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College, and lives in Frostburg, Maryland.


It sounds bad, you playing husband,
playing father, you playing the man
who starts to believe

the words on his business card,
putting on your suit in the morning
the way knights once put on their armor,

all day carrying a heaviness
that at first gets you down, yet soon
begins to feel normal, a chosen

weight, your very own masquerade.
It sounds bad, but you've tried hard
to successfully impersonate that man.

You've wanted act to become habit,
love replicated to be a definition of love,
though in fact you've been an impostor

of an impostor, often able to manufacture
authenticity when you've needed to,
then observing its effect. But consider  

what used to sound good—someone
earnestly trying to be himself,
as if being oneself couldn't be hideous,

you and people you've known:
pigs in the slop, men in the throes
of discovering the joy in their malice.

Blind Date With The Muse

Well, not exactly blind; I knew of her.
I was the needy unknown, worried
about appearance, and what, if anything,
she'd see beneath it. And, desperate
as this sounds, it was I who fixed myself up—

I didn't mind being middleman
to the man I longed to be. "Yes," she agreed,
then, "I hope you're not the jealous type."
I lied, and she named the time and place,
told me there'd be others, ever and always.

The door was open. And there we all were—
men and women, empty handed
and dressed down—each of us hoping
to please by voice, by tone. In her big chair
she welcomed or frowned, and one man

she gently touched, as if to say, "Don't
despair, it will be delivered soon."
Even as I hated him, I took heart.
She was the plainest woman I'd ever seen.
I wanted to make her up, but all arrangements

seemed hers—I found myself unable
to move. "You look lonely," she said,
"a little lost, the kind of man
who writes deathly poems about himself.
Sensitive, too," she added, and laughed.

Thus began the evening the Muse,
that life-long tease, first spoke to me.
"If you want to be any good
you must visit me every day," she said.
And then, "I'm hardly ever home."

Here And Now

— for Barbara
      There are words
I've had to save myself from,
like My Lord and Blessed Mother,
words I said and never meant,
though I admit a part of me misses
the ornamental stateliness
of High Mass, that smell

  of incense. Heaven did exist,
I discovered, but was reciprocal
and momentary, like lust
felt at exactly the same time—
two mortals, say, on a resilient bed,
making a small case for themselves.

         You and I became the words
I'd say before I'd lay me down to sleep,
and again when I'd wake—wishful
words, no belief in them yet.  
It seemed you'd been put on earth

                         to distract me
from what was doctrinal and dry.
Electricity may start things,
but if they're to last
I've come to understand
a steady, low-voltage hum

                          of affection
must be arrived at. How else to offset
the occasional slide          
into neglect and ill-temper?
I learned, in time, to let heaven
go its mythy way, to never again

                 be a supplicant
of any single idea. For you and me
it's here and now from here on in.
Nothing can save us, nor do we wish
to be saved.

                   Let night come
with its austere grandeur,
ancient superstitions and fears.
It can do us no harm.
We'll put some music on,
open the curtains, let things darken
as they will.

To My Doppelganger

You were always the careful one,
who'd tiptoe into passion
and cut it in half with your mind.
I allowed you that, and went
happier, wilder ways. Now
every thought I've ever had
seems a rope knotted
to another rope, going back
in time. We're intertwined.
I've learned to hesitate
before even the most open door.
I don't know what you've learned.
But to go forward, I feel,
is to go together now. There's a place
I'd like to arrive by nightfall.

Landscape And Soul

Though we should not speak about the soul,
that is, about things we don't know,
I'm sure mine sleeps the day long,
waiting to be jolted, even jilted awake,
preferably by joy, but sadness also comes
by surprise, and the soul sings its songs.

And because no one landscape compels me,
except the one that's always out of reach
(toward which, nightly, I go), I find myself
conjuring Breugel-like peasants cavorting
under a Magritte-like sky—a landscape
the soul, if fully awake, could love as its own.

But the soul is rumored to desire a room,
a chamber, really, in some far away outpost
of the heart. Landscape can be lonely and cold.
Be sweet to me, world.

Book Review

David Rigsbee reviews
Stephen Dunn's new book
Here and Now


Stephen Dunn

Poets in Person:
Stephen Dunn