by Stephen Dobyns
Copper Canyon Press, 2010
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I once attended a dinner at which I explained that Stephen Dobyns' poems typically took the form of a bolero. By that I meant to say that they start off modestly but build to a climactic moment that owes less to thematic coming-together, than to formal necessity. It happened that Dobyns was present at this dinner, and hearing my description, screwed up his eyes and said, "You mean my poems remind you of Ravel's Bolero?" Years later, Dobyns, I maintain, is still wool-gathering, but I can tell you it is high-level wool-gathering, and the result, Winter's Journey, his fourteenth collection, is as engaging in the fling of reference as it is fitting in the warp and woof.
Midway through the fifth poem in Winter's Journey, Dobyns surmises, "Maybe I'm straying from what's said to be said in a poem." It is not an idle question. Dobyns' poems wander all over the place, and his meandering meditations may well strike readers as more closely resembling prose than poetry. At the same time, he also wonders, "but where does such an opinion come from?" In one sense, it's no matter, in that he knows that he stands at the end of a long line of peripatetic poets, Whitman and the Romantics included, for whom the poetry of epiphany is a reflection of timelessness that looks nostalgic as it recedes in the rearview mirror. Such poets prefer tramping the soils of history to penning immortal lines. For them, writing verse suggests either the tracing of the mind's journeys or the creation of inventories that present themselves to those same minds. Socrates recommended peripateia; so did Heidegger. The latter even suggests that "meandering" is the form that constitutes poetic thinking as such, unlike straight lines (and tidy forms), which presumably fall under the category of rationality, Blake's Urizen and his avatar Isaac Newton, who, with a compass, obsessively tries to survey the floor of hell. For Dobyns, the same wandering is accomplished with his dog. In fact, readers are likely to hear the theme song from "Lassie" when Dobyns picks up the leash and heads out to walk and ruminate.
And what engages him these days is the mess the country has been in since 9/11. What poet hasn't been moved to record the change of heartbeat after that date? Dobyns is not interested in prophecy. In fact, although he is a poet who stands by the motivational effects of wonder, it's the other ironic and disabused side that often drives these poems.
"Napatree Point" is a good example of the kind of meander Dobyns is good for, and he wastes no time getting down to tacks. While a couple of poems in Winter's Journey tend to the windy side, "Napatree Point" moves coherently, if despairingly, into its subjectthe lure of nihilism which wars against the duty to engagement. The dog trotting amiably by his side both circumscribes the poet's ramblings and brings him back to a reality for which the storms of war, the questions of national destiny, and the underlying questions about who owns the soul of America are just noise. In a sense, Dobyns answers the question that vexed Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents, namely, how to reconcile the claims of the family with the claims of civic and national purpose. The dog's implicit answer is simple: it's the family, stupid. And with the family comes the personal and idiosyncratic, and with it comes also lyricism, the stuff of poetry. Not for nothing are the poems in Winter's Journey bookended with traditional lyric poems (one at each end, to be precise). Not for nothing does the poet present himself as a person in need of political and metaphysical relief, his companion mutt like the mascot in a Dutch Master's painting.
If the answer is simple, arriving there is not. Indeed, Dobyns never quite accepts intellectually or ethically, the dog's unequaled delight in the here-and-now. Qualification is the mind's defensive cross-hatching; its lack of complexity leads it either to parse trouble into intelligible and manageable bits, or to erect a screen. The dog would argue the latter and bark (meaning, "why bother?") for good measure. But that's the thing about accepting the responsibility of citizenship: the dog is either a reminder that privacy has primacy, or he is an ideal being invulnerable to the beyond, whether you construe that as political, philosophical, or temporal (the future and with it, mortal anxiety).
In "Mourning Doves," he wonders, "Maybe I'm straying from what's said to be said in a poem?/ but where does such an opinion come from?" It is a question he comes back to more than once, as in "Possum":
Maybe that's why I've been writing poems on subjects
mostly found in prose. I feel guilty pursuing the usual
material when the world hovers at the brink of collapse.
It is the possibility that there might be an extra-poetic set of topics that a good poet avoids, presumably in favor of some more manneredeven genteelset of topics ("flowers and sex"). Yet the genteel is not satisfying, and sex, however tamed by lyricism, remains a wildness that typifies all of nature, as we have heard. The real subject of "Mourning Doves" is human credulity, made acute in a democracy, having been presumably less so in the autocratic past:
Back then fake prophets were as thick
as leaves on an oak, as they had visions, preached
salvation, and urged their followers to kill the Jews
to ensure redemption. In time they would be hanged
or burned at the stake; then a new prophet would
arrive in town and new visions would get people
marching again, eager victims of bogus information
and ruthless ignorance.
Such examples of mass gullibility have ties to more recent examples. I quote this next at length, as it gives a feel for much of the state of acid bemusement in which Dobyns finds himself:
The trouble with having a mind that includes
an imagination, a sense of possibility, and a flexible
grasp of cause and effect is that it can lead to astonishing
pinnacles of human achievement and incredible lows,
like the woman who found the Virgin Mary in a grilled
cheese sandwich, saying: "I went to take a bite and saw
this lady looking back." Ten years later she sold it
for twenty-eight thousand bucks to an online casino
that wants to take the sandwich on a world tour. This
is not uncommon. A couple in Nebraska have a pretzel
showing the Virgin holding the baby Jesus; a fellow
in Nashville displayed a cinnamon bun with the face
of Mother Teresa and a woman in L.A.. found the face
of Jesus on the furry ass of a terrier mix named Angus.
Through his cloud of high dudgeon, Dobyns keeps his eye on the natural and the personal. It's that desire for balance where the outside would is so conspicuously haywire that keeps Dobyns' lute in tune. He wonders, too, about questions of generic fit in "Possum":
A lyric poem can be a burst of emotion in one moment
of time and a narrative poem can employ its story line
to set up a lyric moment, but a meditative poem can be
a fretful thing, with dark musings coming and going
like crows weaving through winter trees.
But all these critical noodlings have a common denominator. It is the old debate between knowing and believing, thinking and feeling. In "Rabbits," he puts it this way:
For years I've tried to balance
cynicism and wonder, like balancing a brick and a feather,
and I'm sorry to say that often I've fallen on the side
of the former.
Winter's Journey presents a variant, at once intelligent, amusing, outrageous, and deeply humane, of the tug-of-war between what we might call "instrumental knowledge" and felt experience. The Enlightenment set knowledge on a pedestal as the model for what the interior life of serious humans concern itself with, the prerogatives of knowledge outspending the prerogatives of felt experience by a considerable margin. In other words, the life of the mind has recently been held in higher esteem then the life of the spirit, holistically construed. Spirit has been on the defensive, its trappings highjacked by charlatans and power freaks. For all his misgivings about the poet's ability to take on the endless horrors and absurdities, at the end of the day, his views are compact with Chekhov, of whom he relates:
In a letter, Chekhov wrote
that he didn't need to say stealing horses was wrong,
he only had to describe a horse thief exactly.
Wonder may invite the dangers of naivete, and naivete may prove wonder's Achilles' heel in the face of the onslaught of every kind of badnessespecially the conniving, in-the-know kind, but Dobyns may claim more than the moral high ground, as he knows that figures of speech exceed numerical figures and stanzas are better ways to talk about ourselves, be we ever so fallen, than decades and epochs. Entertaining, sardonic, troubled, and pissed, in no particular order, Dobyns' Winter's Journey allows this poet, long a fixture of American letters, to show what his work looks like at maximum extension.