Book Review

In his poem “Come Visit,” Stephen Dunn says, “I need to talk to a betting man, / someone who still believes the future has a chance.” Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Dunn’s new book of poetry, Whereas, comes out of a life examined but also beckons the reader to examine their own life, asks us to believe “the future has a chance.” Author of over fifteen collections of poetry and prose, Dunn creates a world in Whereas where nature and man evaluate each other through observation. Billy Collins remarked that “Stephen Dunn has long known how to begin a poem so it sounds like part of a conversation.” This can be seen in Dunn’s poem “Propositions,” in which everything is questioned down to the level of the colloquial phrase, “A good sentence needs / a clause or two, interruptions, set off by commas.” But it doesn’t stop at grammatical or syntactical theorizing—Dunn slips into a philosophical questioning of the role of honesty in interpersonal relationships with a humorous twist. He starts and ends with the same preposition, “In all honesty,” commenting that anyone who begins with such a proposition is “about to tell a lie.” The final words, “In all honesty, / I was asking in advance to be forgiven,” suggest that a beauty in relationships, and in poetry, lies within the fine line of half-truths.

In “Moon Song,” Dunn examines the anthropocene through the moon’s gravitational force:

We’d known for years it could move oceans, cause catastrophes,
but these days it seemed more powerful than ever—

levees broken, towns under water, heartrending diminutions.
It happened with and without us, was never our fault.

Dunn questions the historical breadth of knowledge available to us, from the religious belief in a “vengeful god” to our contemporary meteorologists that give us our “daily portals into havoc.” The storm becomes a portal into our own lives, and complicity in the universe, “as if someone else / were responsible.” Later in the collection, in “At the School for the Deaf,” Dunn recalls the storm in language, and in the human need for communication. “‘Silence has a rough, crazy weather,’” a student writes for him, and the silence experienced by the student becomes a mute act of resistance, a response of non-communication. The moon, with its gravitational pull, calls and the sea answers, but humans do not always have that pull, and teachers do not always have that ability. For this student, the silence is both empowering and isolating. The oceans cannot resist, but language, or in this case Dunn’s crafting language around another’s silence, can be resistance. How do we try to understand other worlds, other experiences? In this collection, no experience is silent, not even from man-made materials.

Dunn echoes Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” in his poem “If It’s True,” which questions an intergenerational memory not just of humans and their progeny, but of objects made by man, the toothpick “that once was part of something / grand, like a pine or a sequoia.” Dunn talks about the “Frankensteinian power” that marks our children’s passions: the tantrum, the breakdown, the shaping of a human acceptable by society that “work[s] perfectly / in public.” It is this kind of unobtrusive half-truth that Dunn crafts so well. He is deft at weaving a tapestry out of ideas, so no poem is alone on the page. The moon, the sea, its gravitational forces upon each other and the bodies within recur and echo like waves. And this inheritance of creation or shaping becomes influenced by all these worldly atmospheres, and the human touch upon it through man-made objects, and indeed through the next human generation as well. This is echoed again in “Unnatural,” where he argues both for the beauty of man’s creations and the artificial beauty “designed, / revised,” as well as reimagines the pastoral ode in which “nothing man-made can compete.” Dunn’s play with both time and allegory allows a kind of confrontation both with his own beliefs of beauty, but also with a haughty personified Nature who “has been known to go on and on.”

Dunn questions our beliefs, our prayers, our superstitions, and even our words through lyric, and indeed, conversational poetry. Whether black cats or colloquialisms, Dunn tells us to find the depth in everything, but especially in our relationship with language, and what it can do for us, all while retaining the humor necessary for the at times bitter pill of self-reflection. This collection is one in which we journey through the text, and, as in “Emergings,” come to the other side renewed.

We discover that when most afraid,
when catastrophe looms, opportunities abound.
We learn the power of slings and stones.
And the best storyteller emerges
from all of those wishing to explain.

About the Reviewer

Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and scholar. She has been published numerous journals including COG, Crack the Spine, ELKE, The Foundling Review, Paper Nautilus, The Yellow Chair Review, Stonecoast Review, Sweet Tree Review, and Whiskey Traveler. Her chapbook, Pelt, was a finalist for the Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Award and for The Comstock Writers Group Chapbook Contest. She holds an MFA from Naropa University where she was the Jack Kerouac Fellow and is currently a graduate fellow in English literature and cultural studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.