“The Bad Angels” by Stephen Dunn.

They are writing our names in the sky,
the bad angels with their calamitous wings.
They are spelling them wrong, exaggerating
the loops so that we’ll see each other
askew, imperfect, like clouds broken off
from other clouds, separated by blue.

Worst part of me, old underminer
whom I’ve exiled unsuccessfully
into the far-away charged air,
I know it’s your black-winged gang.
I wish I had some invisible means
of support, some magic against you.
I wish I could marshal all
that’s ever gotten away from me:
Love and loss, what plutonium!
What oblivion I could send you to.

They are changing our names in the sky,
making their own insidious designs.
I am one man with just the normal equipment,
saying, No, offering little essays to the wind.
They are removing the vowels now.
They are erasing the beginning and the end.


“Those of Us Who Think We Know” by Stephen Dunn.

Those of us who think we know
the same secrets
are silent together most of the time,
for us there is eloquence
in desire, and for a while
when in love and exhausted
it’s enough to nod like shy horses
and come together in a quiet ceremony of tongues.

it’s in disappointment we look for words
to convince us
the spaces between the stars are nothing
to worry about,
it’s when those secrets burst
in that emptiness between our hearts
and the lumps in our throats.
And the words we find
are always insufficient, like love,
though they are often lovely
and all we have.


“A Primer for Swimming at Black Point” by Stephen Dunn.

The bottom drops off quickly
and you’re in over your head
among the crosscurrents,
the floating sea plants.
This is where to swim, though,
if you can, the water cold enough
to stir in you what’s sleeping,
the fir trees on the other side
grand and achievable.

Just think of your fear
as alertness, and be happy for it.
Without fear it’s often tempting
to believe the water cares
about you; in its movement
your mother’s voice.
Consider getting out then.
It will never tell you
this intimacy cannot go on.

And when you get out
there’ll be no evidence
you were ever in, just a
tingling, an aliveness
that hints insurrection
in the deepest parts of you,
and it too will pass.
Don’t expect to know more
than your body has absorbed.


“Instead of You” by Stephen Dunn

I place a dead butterfly on the page,
this is called starting
with an image from real life.

It is gold and black
and, as if in some embalmer’s dream,
a dusting of talc on its wings.
I have plans
for these wings. I will not let them
slip through my hands.
And if anyone is worried about how
the butterfly died, I’ll tell them
my cat swatted it out of the air,
I just picked it up
and brought it to this page
with a notion of breathing
a different life into it. And I confess:
the cat’s gesture was more innocent than mine.

The wings suggest nothing I want,
they are so lovely
I simply like the way they distract,
how my eye turns away from the living-
room, and the mind spins
into the silliness of spring.
I don’t want much.
Just for certain private places
to remain open to me, that’s all.
But this is no time to get ethereal.
Already, in a far corner of the page,
something dark is tempting me
to pull it into the poem. One tug
and it’s a bat
trapped in sunlight, rabid with fear.

There’s no way to keep the ugliness out,
ever. Drops of blood
beautiful, say, on the snow,
always lead to a wound.
Can this still turn out to be a love poem?
Can I still pull you from the wreckage
and kiss your bruises, so black and gold?
Is it too late to introduce you
who were always here, the watermark,
the poem’s secret?
From the start all I wanted to explain
was how things go wrong,
how the heart’s an empty place
until it is filled,

and how the darkness is forever waiting
for its chance.
If I have failed, know that I was trying
to get to you in my own way,
know that my cat never swatted a butterfly,
it was I who invented and killed it,
something to talk about
instead of you.


“Lovers” by Stephen Dunn.

To keep the one you want
dig up a footprint of hers
and put it in a flowerpot.
Then plant a marigold, the flower
that doesn’t fade.
And love her.
If she’s distant now
it’s for a reason beyond control.
So don’t tamper with the impressions
left by her body when
for the last time
she leaves your bed.
Just smooth them out
and forget her.
Who is not vulnerable
to a stronger magic (the
broken glass, the bullets
in a yawn),
the terrible power of the one
less in love.