Common Language

Two acclaimed poets are drawn together by their love of writing.

October 06, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

FROSTBURG - Nestled in a clearing at the top of a gravel drive, a solitary wooden house is surrounded on three sides by forest, and on the fourth, a sprawling golden cornfield. Patches of garden dot the yard, one of them filled with black-eyed Susans. Near the front of the house, stones hang in a circle from gossamer strands of wire, forming a giant sculpture. Except for the wind in the trees, there is silence.

Then the poets, any aura of pre-eminence banished by swift first impressions, throw open the door. She wears loose black trousers, a black blouse and sandals, her hair pulled casually back in a headband. He wears blue jeans, a green polo shirt and tennis shoes. They gesture toward their sunlit living room, where they settle into soft brown sofas, offering up wine and a plate of cheese.

Married just six months, Barbara Hurd and Stephen Dunn, both 54, are a power couple among contemporary writers. Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book Different Hours, Dunn has published 12 volumes of verse. His other accolades include the James Wright Prize and the National Poetry Series award. In 1996, his book Loosestrife was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Hurd, a professor of English at Frostburg State University since 1986, is no less accomplished. Last year, she won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and earlier this year, the Bright Hill Press Poetry Award for her 2003 book of poems, The Singer's Temple. Her second book, Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and the Human Imagination, a collection of essays about Finzel Swamp in Western Maryland, was selected as a best book of the year in 2001 by the Los Angeles Times.

Just last month, Hurd published her third book, Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark (Houghton Mifflin, $23), a meditative, lyrical work about the natural history of caves and an exploration of them as a metaphor for life and loss. It, too, was released to critical acclaim.

Excusing himself to allow his wife to discuss her most recent work, Dunn goes off to another part of their cabin-like house. Curling her feet up on the couch, Hurd explains the unusual catalyst for her book - a panic attack she experienced in a "squeeze" (what spelunkers call a tight passage) when she first entered a cave over a decade ago. At the time, Hurd was teaching creative writing at an environmental camp for middle-school students. Although she had never before felt claustrophobic, she was seized with terror while navigating one of the cave's 2-foot-wide passages. As she recalls, she suddenly felt frozen, as though her body was being crushed by the walls around her. For years, the experience nagged her.

"That attack was a signal not that this was a book I wanted to write, but that this was a reaction I didn't expect," Hurd says. "Once I calmed down and several years went by, I was really interested in that reaction. It was that combination of beauty and terror in one place that was finally just irresistible."

It is her instinctive desire to find beauty in swamps, caves and other dark, impenetrable and sometimes frightening places that differentiates Hurd from other writers of the natural world. She looks beyond what is obviously grand - sunsets, seascapes or snow-capped peaks - to find inspiration in the unlikely. It is through the vast emptiness and complexities of places like swamps and caves that Hurd examines the world within herself, unearthing all of its loneliness, anxieties, fears and ambiguities. As she explains it, her universe is one in which emptiness comes first, then form. While exploring dozens of caves from Arizona to India, Hurd found herself frequently dealing with emptiness.

"Maybe what I want in this cave is some slow motion," she writes in her book. "Embodied drama of disorientation and adieu, the chance to study in isolated detail how it feels when almost everything is gone. ... "

In some chapters, Hurd's habit of lingering in the darkest shadows of nature and the human psyche makes for some rather uncomfortable, claustrophobic reading. But for her, the experience - and the writing about it - was oddly reassuring.

"There is something about that embodiment of erasure and loss as an utterly natural process under the surface of the earth that is comforting," she says. "Maybe it's that being in a cave, you have that knowledge that you can make something out of its emptiness ... Even though you don't know what to make of someone's dying, for example, you can find something creative and comforting in the loss."

`Viscera of absence'

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