As sort of a literary snack, some lyrical Cheetos, I recently dipped into one of my favorite poetry books, Stephen Dunn’s “Different Hours.” It’s magnificent; so many fine poems, so many lines that quietly slash. The poems are all about wisdom and honesty and breakage, lovers and loss and burying a cat.
I don’t care so much that the book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, though it surely deserved it. I do care that it contains this stanza:
I was burned by books early/and kept sidling up to the flame.
And I care even more that it has this bracing verse, from the final poem in the collection, “A Postmortem Guide (For my eulogist, in advance)”:
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.
Those shimmering words shatter me, in a most positive fashion. (“In the despoiled and radiant now”!) The verse is frank but droll, vulnerable and confessional. It’s written with the points of melancholy stars.
Dunn, like his comrade in wry minimalism, Billy Collins, wields an unabashed colloquial touch, his plain-spokenness littered (glittered?) with joyous turns of phrase and often mischievous, tip-toeing humor.
He’s a master of subtlety, but any perceived simplicity is thoroughly deceptive. If you think Dunn’s poems are simple-minded, even pablum, you are sorely mistaken. You haven’t done the work.