by Stephen Dunn
Published by WW Norton
80 pages, 2003
Celebration, Not Despair
Reviewed by Gianmarc Manzione
Opening with a playful and vivid poem, "Bowl Of Fruit" that, as always with Dunn, weaves its way confidently from bananas and oranges to yet another poignant and sincere statement on desire, Dunn's 12th book of poems revises familiar themes with an eye more towards celebration than despair.
Dunn hints of a Blake gone fiendish in lines such as "But surely by now you've come to realize/there is no worm, only this bowl of fruit/made of words, only these seductions." For a second, at least, the famed "invisible worm" of Blake's "The Sick Rose" is kept at bay in favor of the world's fleeting but "seductive" pleasures; a rather drastic change of tone from the almost ceaseless morbidity that characterized Dunn's previous volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Different Hours.
However, Dunn is hardly about to recant much of his past 11 collections of warnings in verse against the illusion of happiness, as in the wickedly enjambed poem, "Circular":
a belief in happiness bred
Despite Dunn's urge towards life's morose truths, though, images of a modern-day Sisyphus daring a smile in the midst of his punishment, "a smile so inward it cannot be seen," and notions such as "at the bottom of depression, says James Hollis/is some meaningful task waiting to be found" suggest that Local Visitations is a kind of reconciliation with the harrowing blues of Different Hours.
If Different Hours advised against desire's inevitably painful temptations, many poems in Local Visitations transcend caution and despair in favor of delight and wonder. "The problem is how to look intelligent/with our mouths agape/how to be delighted, not stupefied/when the caterpillar shrugs and becomes a butterfly," Dunn avers in "Knowledge." If life's grander pleasures fail us, perhaps we might turn, instead, to its smaller joys. If the human being is doomed to fallibility, perhaps we might learn "how to love amid the encroachments," as Dunn suggests in his uniquely poignant plainspokenness.
But if, after so many books of thwarted longing, Dunn's observations on "how boring sorrows are" is not enough of a refreshment to his seasoned readers, then the playful, imaginative and engaging section of poems in which he escorts a cadre of famous authors through the landscape of his Native New Jersey serves as a remarkable new dimension to Dunn's distinctive and persistent voice.
"Because the famous usually have little to say/to each other after the first paeans of praise," Dunn explains, "the poet thought that for their own sakes/he'd have them live in separate towns." Pivoting off of this introductory poem, Dunn leaps into a succession of poems with titles such as "Chekhov in Port Republic," "Charlotte Bronte in Leeds Point," "George Eliot in Beach Haven," and "Twain in Atlantic City."
With his imagination tuned to a fever pitch, these particular poems read like short stories in verse, brimful of ideas, wit and confidence, guaranteeing the well-versed reader's pleasure. "Occasionally the weak survive/because the god that doesn't exist/wants to give us something to misinterpret/That's what Crane was thinking as he washed up on Longport Beach," Dunn narrates in "Stephen Crane in Longport."
While Dunn's playfulness here is more indicative of the work of Billy Collins or Deborah Garrison, still his voice maintains its gravity and cunning as he delves beneath the hearts of his subjects, revealing the alienation that burdened the young, brilliant Stephen Crane: "It's pointless, Crane wanted to say/wherever you're all going/but he knew they'd think he was lying/or maybe not even hear him."
Though a familiar tinge of helplessness enervates the book's tendency towards an awareness of the world's smaller, more manageable delights, it does not overwhelm or sour Dunn's attempt to emerge from the smolder and ruin of Different Hours. Local Visitations is likely one of Dunn's boldest and brightest books, suggesting that the resignation pervading Different Hours is only a temporary waiting room for those whose eyes are fixed on that "meaningful task waiting to be found." | March 2003
Gianmarc Manzione is a poet and music writer. He is currently working on his first book of poems, Clutter of Bones.