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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems just published by NewSouth Books and of two upcoming collections, The Pilot House and School of the Americas, both from Black Lawrence Press. He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.

The Despoiled and Radiant Now:
Ambivalence And Secrets In Stephen Dunn

For Stephen Dunn, seeing double poses no obstacle on the way to clarity. Double-seeing is what we do, and he has carved a much-admired career out of exploring what makes us ambivalent and of how ambivalence typifies something in our moment. Brodsky, a poet so superficially different from Dunn that it is hard to imagine an overlap, asserted that for a poet, ambivalence was a necessity. Of course, he was largely referring to imagination's survival mode when in Orwellian political (and consequently linguistic) circumstances, and for him the strategies and tactics obtaining in these circumstances were always in play. Dunn goes him one better in finding the necessity for ambivalence inherent a fortiori in daily life, without the heroism implicit in the expatriate's utterances, and his poems describe how that necessity plays itself out in the world of human relationships. In its regularity and dynamism, Dunn's fondness for counter-thesis would make a Hegel smile. It's an ability to appear synoptic when reflecting upon the mind's tendency to experience a thing and almost immediately to entertain its opposite. This opposite can take the form of a rejected alternative, a road not taken, an unchosen career, a personal secret, or, in its rare, expanded version, a whole secret life. Novelists' careers have been founded on less.

The secret, that privatized country of imagination, comes into play trailing a long literary pedigree. Like scarcity and prayer, secrets create value. One value they create for sure, whether as the result of a revelation harbored or the Pater Noster, is a more robust accommodation of the imagination to, as we would say, interiority. So in one sense we may allow ourselves to think that the ambivalence poets feel and write about has a positive component. It is the counter-alternative in the ambivalence that is at issue in Dunn, the one he seems interested in setting to theme. It's the imagination's equivalent of the road not taken, and it is none the worse for that, as far as Dunn is concerned.

      Still I can't be sure, as you were,
      that what's hidden is any more mysterious
      than the palpable immensity that isn't.
                                                       ("Loosestrife" -5)

The sense of ambivalent encounter that so often appears in Dunn's poems reminds me of something else the Russian said about ambivalence, namely that it stood to be a saving trait in a poet. In postponing commitment the poet maintains a freedom that appears when ambivalence shades into equilibrium—a sort of discount freedom, based on a détente toward positions usually already compromised. This is not magical thinking. Indeed, freedom like this shades also into anomie:

      It was the hour of simply nothing,
      not a single desire in my western heart,
      and no ancient system
      of breathing and postures,
      no big idea justifying what I felt.
                                                      ("Zero Hour")

As strategies go, the relinquishment of any "big idea" is itself the ghost, or trace, or elegy, of a big idea. Even lassitude has its poetry, but you won't get it by flying the flag of a traditional theme. As everyone knows, the Russians and French were onto the heaviness of anomie. It's a testimony to American exceptionalism that Whitman's sunny disposition pulled our poetry in toward imagism and mysticism. Anomie's lack of grasp allows the hand to dangle down into the lower depths. As he showed so adroitly in early poems, boundaries are enablers, as his more than passing acquaintance with formalism also shows. In interviews, he says things like, "The Commandments rose out of somebody's understanding of human nature; given who we are, we need a lot of Thou shalt not's."

When we go in this direction, we discover, not only that wish (and that need) to expand our interiority, but we find the not-chosen rife with imagination's fruits. It is not a stone's throw from the not-chosen to a fantasy land of counter-facts that tap the brake pedal of conformist behavior. It's not fantasy so much that matters anyway, but the psychological or human predisposition to imagine alternatives and to have lived with both those chosen and those not. This latter can become a kind of shadow life:

      It's why when we speak of truth
      some of us instantly feel foolish
      as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
      and there it is—the opposite
      of what we said.
                                                      ("The Reverse Side")

Dunn is of the school of Chekhov, one of whose characters remarked (or rather thought) that it's the secret life that chiefly bears our significance. He also reminded us that we should be shadowed by a man with a hammer, who would be there to whack us, by way of reminder, every time we thought fit to avoid the pain of others, or by extension, to deny the secret life, with its sorrows and impossible desires. And Dunn knows, like Chekhov, why that life is secret:

      But by the middle years this other life
      had become his life. That was Odysseus's secret,
      kept even from himself. When he talked about return,
      he thought he meant what he said.
                                                     ("Odysseus's Secret")

On this Chekhovian view, secrets are also a locked part of human interiority, and it is such interiority that has a purchase on a significant portion of modern personhood, just as deeds did in bygone epics, if the poets are to be believed. And the difference between specifically secrets and other sorts of interiority, is the difference between a memory and a prayer. I would even venture to say that this Chekhovian view constitutes the tenor and atmospherics of much of Dunn's poetry. Now it may be, and I think this may be Dunn's suspicion, that the carrying of secrets and the need to divulge or confess them enables us to consider ourselves in a new light of consequentiality, dignified by the knowledge of imperfection, inspired by those same imperfections, to move away from faultless dreams, allowing us something denied the gods, what we grandly call a tragic vision. I mean, it is all intramural, is it not? Neither gods nor animals understand our weeping, our inconsistencies, our need for rhetoric, to say that which is not, as well as that which is.

Meanwhile, we don't know people's secret lives until there is a rupture or an unlocking. The subsequent release paints us as even more partial—even more mortal (i.e., discontinuous)—creatures than we had feared. This is tragic in the classical sense: things are not meant to work out. Its revelation as a secret also ruins it as a secret: it is under wraps no longer. Meanwhile there is something usable in discontinuity, in what doesn't finish (even in secrets). Dostoyevsky knew it and fastened incompletion to the tragedy's porch. Dunn mentions elsewhere that as a young writer it was Dostoyevsky who turned his head around. After that, he was good to go: the seeming inconsistency in Raskolnikov's opposition to animal cruelty would pose no problem for Dunn:

      So next week why not admit
      that what Raskolnikov did
      has always made you dream?
      There more you expose yourself
      the more you become unrecognizable.
                                                    ("The Soul's Agents")

The secret not only creates the value of interiority, it gets another project going. An awareness of the value of secrecy kindles an awareness of mystery, and from that flows all manner (but not all) of art.

Writing one's life in public is both anathema to that sense of the sacred and unaesthetic, insofar as poems are concerned. But emerging from the high water mark of confessionalism, Dunn is unafraid of the potential insult that follows from revelation. Take his well-known "The Routine Things Around the House," where the speaker both elegizes and thanks his mother for revealing to him her breasts, a bounded moment of tender instruction that left him, he argues, a regular guy without hangups.

      this poem
      is dedicated to where we stopped, to the incompleteness that was sufficient
      and to how you buttoned up,
      began doing the routine things
      around the house.

Now no one should be under the illusion that the boundaries of behavior reflected in the boundaries of form or any other aesthetic approach do more than offer the "momentary stay against confusion" which the poem proposes as its contribution to human solidarity. I note that the "stay" is just as mortal as the sayer; only the confusion seems to have a purchase on the long run. In an interview, Dunn puts it this way:
I do think that in our poems and in our stories we can offer those momentary stays against confusion. We can create coherencies out of the raw stuff of life, the chaos of it, the fraughtness of it. Credible fictions that for awhile seduce us and others into acceptance of them. Versions of a life, not a life. Yes, if we do them well enough they may well indeed constitute a life, especially after we're gone.
There is also the presumption that goes with necessary fictions. Consider the ending to Dunn's well known "At The Smithville Methodist Church."

      Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
      You can't say to your child

      "Evolution loves you." The story stinks
      of extinction and nothing
      exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have
      a wonderful story for my child
      and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
      she sang the songs,
      occasionally standing up for Jesus.
      There was nothing to do
      but drive, ride it out, sing along
      in silence.

Human relationships and dealings are of course layered, as are the ambivalences they foster. It is one of Dunn's strengths to find these layers and write the narratives that are appropriate to them. As travel writer David Downie once wrote, "Time can render true what began in falsehood." The thing about authenticity (or in authenticity) of feelings goes back to poets like James Wright and John Logan. The fact of authenticity began to lose force when lyric poetry began to undergo a destabilization in the 1970s—and for the same reason: things like subjectivity itself were put under a microscope and revealed their parts. This shift notwithstanding, Dunn acquitted himself well by building a sense of knowingness in the poems he made, and he went right on writing poems about men and women. Part of what he knew was that authenticity is not to be confused with the likes of sincerity: the latter was always self-divided. What better way to say this than to first look in the bedroom. To have a partner is to enact an ambivalence; it is inherently unstable, as the title, "Sleeping with Others," attests.

      I am unreachable.
      If I were standing next to you
      you'd see for yourself
      how far away I was.

Dunn is one of the great poets of domestic mystery, and that mystery is in turn founded on yet another division: the satisfaction and the outrage of solitude. Rilke went so far as to declare that love was the mutual protection of solitude, and insight that would have quite sobered the woozy rhapsodists of Platos Symposium. The ambivalence, the combining power of many viewpoints, in married life is nowhere more apparent (nor so well hidden in plain sight) than in speech.

Dunn is also perhaps our preeminent poet at clarifying what's intractable. It is no small feat. Where other poets are content to gesture or skirt the difficulties of description, altogether, Dunn jumps right in and sheepdogs wandering meaning through the gate. Keeping discourse between such navigational guidelines would seem to suggest that Dunn is a realist, by which I mean a poet who steers his way between desire and nothing in a dialectic that has profound stylistic implications. His own poems, for example, owe something to the sprezzatura of a James Tate, while also seeking the aesthetic oneness of closure. Not for him the discontinuous, the merely textual, the fodder of irony. Although his demotic ease might be mistaken for the work of a poet who likes to spin language, his work comes from older stock and his persistent explorations of the Id's agenda and the power associated with that, in contrast to redemptive or illuminative moments (secular divison) mark him as a poet who has not moved far beyond the gravitational field of the Verities.

      You've faked so many feelings
      in your time you wonder
      if it could have been
      the ghost of faked feelings
      offering you an authentic sadness
                                                    ("The Song")

Secrets and lies are often paired. The linguistic ramifications are similar: both secrets and lies are exceptions to a general rule. Just as secrets require a presumption that revelation would be bad, a lie requires general truthfulness in language as normative. This is the reason, among other things, that Satan's mission in Paradise Lost was doomed from the get-go and that there is no honor among thieves. For Dunn, the subject of secrets and lies, of ambivalent suspensions of allegiance, suggests an acquiescence to boundaries, even as it requires boundaries to be manifest at all. And therein lies a paradox, the kind that a resourceful poet can hang a hat on. Dunn also knows the incentive power of temptation:

      the soul on its own
      is helpless, asleep in the hollows
      of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

                                                                     ("And So")

The individual, particularized soul—the poet's, say, becomes the general "the soul," as if to demonstrate a principle, rather than render a confession. It is the principle he is after, almost as if he had discovered an elemental force previously unnoticed by literature. At bottom, the truths to be discovered in the relationships of ordinary people are every bit as significant to the individuals as approved motives or larger, tectonic forces like history—a region American poets have had to struggle to claim in lyric poetry. It is the prison of days that is at issue and how to mend that singularity, of which Dunn is aware, unsure at times whether to claim the privilege of singularity (authenticity), whether that singularity be subject to relationships, moral development, or a new historical epoch:

      our solitudes are so populated
      that sometimes after sex
      we know it's best to be quiet.
                                                    ("Sleeping with Others")

At times in his poems you sense something like Stoicism:

      The truth is,
      I learned to live without hope
      as well as I could, almost happily,
      in the despoiled and radiant now.
                                                   ("A Postmortem Guide")

At others we experience situational conformity and at still others, desire for what it can't have, as if imagination were a skyhook. And behind all is the ticking.


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