If poetry is any good, the 20th-century Greek poet George Seferis tells us, it must "draw on a deep-rooted experience of life, which all of us, young and old, have within ourselves." Stephen Dunn, last year's Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry for his volume Different Hours and visiting poet in Loyola College's coming Modern Masters Reading Series, has spent the past four decades uncovering this deep-rooted experience.
Dunn's poems converse fluently with what he calls "the commonplace and its contingencies." Imperfect friendships, marriages, the failing body are all noticed by Dunn's humorous and ironic eye.
What gives force to Dunn's commonplaces are the unsettling contradictions between how we feel and how we comport ourselves. His poem "At the Restaurant" produces an existential vertigo that enters, like "a chronic emptiness / spiraling upward in search of words / you'll dare not say / without irony." Dunn knows the social contract of a dinner party demands that we, "behave, feign ... / Praise the Caesar Salad. Praise Susan's / Black dress, Paul's promotion and raise."
And yet our inner voice cannot help but say what the social contract keeps suppressed: "Inexcusable, the slaughter in this world. / Insufficient, the merely decent man." Although Different Hours offers insight into domestic dramas, it also describes the overall precariousness of the present moment.
Dunn's poems are refreshingly accessible because in them he holds up a mirror to life that reflects the "deep-rooted experience" Seferis demanded of good poetry. In this mirror we see not only the atoms of light constituting our tiny selves but the larger world around us. When Dunn writes this way, his poems are prescient.
At the Restaurant by Stephen Dunn
Life would be unbearable
if we made ourselves conscious of it.
-- Fernando Pessoa
Six people are too many people
and a public place the wrong place
for what you're thinking ----
stop this now.
Who do you think you are?
The duck a l'orange is spectacular,
the flan the best in town.
But there among your friends
is the unspoken, as ever,
chatter and gaiety its familiar song.
And there's your chronic emptiness
spiraling upward in search of words
you'll dare not say
You should have stayed at home.
It's part of the social contract
to seem to be where your body is,
and you've been elsewhere like this,
for Christ's sake, countless times;
Certainly you believe a part of decency
is to overlook, to let pass?
Praise the Caesar salad. Praise Susan's
black dress, Paul's promotion and raise.
Inexcusable, the slaughter in this world.
Insufficient, the merely decent man.
"At the Restaurant" appears in After Hours, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.
Stephen Dunn will appear Thursday at Loyola College's McManus Theater at 5 p.m. The event is free.