Poetry

“Long Term” by Stephen Dunn.

On this they were in agreement:
everything that can happen between two people
happens after a while

or has been thought about so hard
there’s almost no difference
between desire and deed.

Each day they stayed together, therefore,
was a day of forgiveness, tacit,
no reason to say the words.

It was easy to forgive, so much harder
to be forgiven. The forgiven had to agree
to eat dust in the house of the noble

and both knew this couldn’t go on for long.
The forgiven would need to rise;
the forgiver need to remember the cruelty

in being correct.
Which is why, except in crises,
they spoke about the garden,

what happened at work,
the little ailments and aches
their familiar bodies separately felt.

Poetry

“Loneliness” by Stephen Dunn.

So many different kinds,
yet only one vague word.
And the Eskimos
with twenty-six words for snow,

such a fine alertness
to what variously presses down.
Yesterday I saw lovers
hugging in the street,

making everyone around them
feel lonely, and the lovers themselves —
wasn’t a deferred loneliness
waiting for them?

There must be words

for what our aged mothers, removed
in those unchosen homes, keep inside,
and a separate word for us
who’ve sent them there, a word

for the secret loneliness of salesmen,
for how I feel touching you
when I’m out of touch.
The contorted, pocked, terribly ugly man

shopping in the 24-hour supermarket
at 3 A. M. — a word for him —
and something, please,
for this nameless ache here

in this nameless spot.
If we paid half as much attention
to our lives as Eskimos to snow …
Still, the little lies,

the never enough.
No doubt there must be Eskimos
in their white sanctums, thinking
just let it fall, accumulate.

Poetry

“Long Term” by Stephen Dunn.

On this they were in agreement:
everything that can happen between two people
happens after a while

or has been thought about so hard
there’s almost no difference
between desire and deed.

Each day they stayed together, therefore,
was a day of forgiveness, tacit,
no reason to say the words.

It was easy to forgive, so much harder
to be forgiven. The forgiven had to agree
to eat dust in the house of the noble

and both knew this couldn’t go on for long.
The forgiven would need to rise;
the forgiver need to remember the cruelty

in being correct.
Which is why, except in crises,
they spoke about the garden,

what happened at work,
the little ailments and aches
their familiar bodies separately felt.

Poetry

“The Kiss” by Stephen Dunn.

She pressed her lips to mind.
—a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone’s lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she’s missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek’s ear,
speaking sense. It’s the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.

Poetry

“A Small Part” by Stephen Dunn.

The summer I discovered my heart
is at best an instrument of approximation
and the mind is asked to ratify
every blood rush sent its way

was the same summer I stared
at the slate gray sea well beyond dusk,
learning how exquisitely
I could feel sorry for myself.

It was personal–the receding tide,
the absent, arbitrary wind.
I had a small part in the great comedy,
and hardly knew it. No excuse,

but I was so young I believed
Ayn Rand had a handle on truth–
secular, heroically severe. Be a man
of unwavering principle, I told others,

and what happens to the poor
is entirely their fault. No wonder
that girl left me in August, a stillness
in the air. I was one of those lunatics

of a single idea, or maybe even worse–
I kissed wrong, or wasn’t brave enough
to admit I was confused.
Many summers later I’d learn to love

the shadows illumination creates.
But experience always occurs too late
to undo what’s been done. The hint
of moon above an unperturbable sea,

and that young man, that poor me,
staring ahead–everything is as it was.
And of course has been changed.
I got over it. I’ve never been the same.

Poetry

“Checklist” by Stephen Dunn.

The housework, the factory work, the work
that takes from the body
and does not put back.
The white-collar work and the dirt
of its profits, the terrible politeness
of the office worker, the work that robs
the viscera to pay the cool
surfaces of the brain. All the work
that makes love difficult, brings on
sleep, drops the body off
at the liquor cabinet. All the work
that reaches the intestines and sprawls.
And the compulsive work after the work
is done, those unfillable spaces
of the Calvinist, or uncertain marriage beds.

Poetry

“Poem for the People who are Understandably too Busy to Read Poetry” by Stephen Dunn.

Relax. This won’t last long.
Or if it does, or if the lines
make you sleepy or bored,
give in to sleep, turn on
the T.V., deal the cards.
This poem is built to withstand
such things. Its feelings
cannot be hurt. They exist
somewhere in the poet,
and I am far away.
Pick it up anytime. Start it
in the middle if you wish.
It is as approachable as melodrama,
and can offer you violence
if it is violence you like. Look,
there’s a man on a sidewalk;
the way his leg is quivering
he’ll never be the same again.
This is your poem
and I know you’re busy at the office
or the kids are into your last nerve.
Maybe it’s sex you’ve always wanted.
Well, they lie together
like the party’s unbuttoned coats,
slumped on the bed
waiting for drunken arms to move them.
I don’t think you want me to go on;
everyone has his expectations, but this
is a poem for the entire family.
Right now, Budweiser
is dripping from a waterfall,
deodorants are hissing into armpits
of people you resemble,
and the two lovers are dressing now,
saying farewell.
I don’t know what music this poem
can come up with, but clearly
it’s needed. For it’s apparent
they will never see each other again
and we need music for this
because there was never music when he or she
left you standing on the corner.
You see, I want this poem to be nicer
than life. I want you to look at it
when anxiety zigzags your stomach
and the last tranquilizer is gone
and you need someone to tell you
I’ll be here when you want me
like the sound inside a shell.
The poem is saying that to you now.
But don’t give anything for this poem.
It doesn’t expect much. It will never say more
than listening can explain.
Just keep it in your attache case
or in your house. And if you’re not asleep
by now, or bored beyond sense,
the poem wants you to laugh. Laugh at
yourself, laugh at this poem, at all poetry.
Come on:

Good. Now here’s what poetry can do.

Imagine yourself a caterpillar.
There’s an awful shrug and, suddenly,
You’re beautiful for as long as you live.

Poetry

“Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn.

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet…

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

Poetry

“Emptiness” by Stephen Dunn.

I’ve heard of yogis talk of a divine
emptiness,
the body free of its base desires,

some coiled and luminous god
in all of us
waiting to be discovered…

and always I’ve pivoted,

followed Blake’s road of excess
to the same source
and know how it feels to achieve

nothing, the nothing that exists
after accomplishment.
And I’ve known the emptiness

of nothing to say, no reason to move,
those mornings I’ve built
a little cocoon with the bedcovers

and lived in it, almost happily,
because what fools
the body more than warmth?

And more than once

I’ve shared an emptiness with someone
and learned
how generous I could be — here,

take this, take this…

Poetry

“Kindness” by Stephen Dunn.

In Manhatan, I learned a public kindness
was a triumph
over the push of money, the constrictions

of fear. If it occured it came
from some deep
primal memory, almost entirely lost–

Here, let me help you, then you me,
otherwise we’ll die.
Which is why I love the weather

in Minnesota, every winter kindness
linked
to obvious self-interest,

thus so many kindnesses
when you need them;
praise blizzards, praise the cold.