Dunn’s ‘Local Visitations’ visits a world of despair
February 4, 2004
In a poem in his most recent collection of poetry, “Local Visitations,” American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn writes, “Once again the man was struck / by how much misery / the human spirit can absorb.”
This seems to be a theme for Dunn, who will give a reading on Friday, Feb. 6, as part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series. Dunn, 64, started writing “Local Visitations” as his marriage began to disintegrate. It is a baleful collection told by a man facing the prospect of growing old alone; the poet sings to us, and sings louder for every tatter in his mortal dress.
The first half of the collection is a study of the mythological figure of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of the mountain, only for the stone to fall back of its own weight. Sisyphus has fascinated modern writers, most famously Camus, and it is easy to see why many critics assume Dunn embraces Sisyphus’ futile labor as an emblem for the struggle of postindustrial man.
But to Dunn, Sisyphus had it easy. Man’s fate is even worse. Modern man doesn’t simply grunt and sweat under a weary life, he does so in a lonely universe in which gods, order and explanation have fled. Sisyphus toils under the wrath of the gods, who peer down on him. Men toil under empty skies. “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,” Shakespeare wrote. Dunn would consider men lucky if this were true.
For Dunn, Lear on the heath is a better emblem of modern man ” alone and naked, howling at empty skies. Consider Sisyphus in Dunn’s “Sisyphus and the Sudden Lightness,” who is released from his labor only to realize for the first time that the gods are absent:
He dared to raise his fist to the sky.
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Nothing, gloriously, happened.
Then a different terror overtook him.
The terror, of course, is nihilism, and for Dunn it’s far-reaching. “Being alone in the universe is a condition I’ve dealt with for a long time,” Dunn said from his home in Pomona, N.J. It’s the condition of man, Dunn writes, “commonplace, these days as fallen gods.”
Of course, this is not unusual for modern poets. Think of early Eliot’s universe ” a lonely wasteland devoid of meaning where the poet “could connect nothing with nothing.” But even dour and miserable Eliot managed by his 60s to set his lands in order, even if the cohesiveness he found through Christianity in The Four Quartets would seem repugnant to many, not least of all Dunn.
Rather, it’s clear Dunn is still struggling to identify something redemptive in the universe, some precious aspect of the modern condition that can redeem the struggle. It’s not in his poetry, at least not in “Local Visitation.” The second half of the book is a tidy, but ultimately disappointing exercise in which Dunn imagines great 19th-century writers living in present-day New Jersey.
These poems, with delightful titles such as “Dickens in Pleasantville” and “Jane Austen in Egg Harbor,” are interesting and intelligent but seem a letdown from the universal issues raised in the collection’s first half. Where are the gods? Where is the meaning? Certainly not in Pleasantville or Egg Harbor.
Auden said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” While this is possibly true, it is definitely true that literary criticism, as practiced in the second half of Dunn’s book, also makes nothing happen.
Auden also said, “In the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise.” It is almost as if Dunn is embarrassed to praise, as if it would be to gush or gape if one were to take delight in life’s pleasure, its mysterious allure, to explain why, as much as we grumble about a lonely life, we are nonetheless hopelessly attached it. In “Knowledge,” Dunn writes,
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.
The courage to stand with mouth agape and not howl or lament, but praise ” this is what Dunn lacks. Who else but a talented poet to save us from despair?
Stephen Dunn will speak at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies on Friday, Feb. 6, at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at the Wheeler Box Office, 920-5770.
Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is email@example.com