Lines of Defense: Poems by Stephen Dunn

Jacqueline Kolosov

 

(W. W. Norton, 2014)

Lines of Defense, Stephen Dunn’s seventeenth book of poetry, is
provocatively titled. On the most literal level, the title speaks to
the collection’s epigraph, which comes from the Italian poet and
novelist Cesare Pavese, an antifascist in the 1930s and a communist
during World War II, whose politics are quietly relevant to
Dunn’s own vision. “Literature,” Pavese said, “is a defense
against the attacks of life.” this faith in poetry’s power is the
bedrock of Dunn’s collection, one that deals with the vulnerabilities
of old age and the dying and ultimate death of the poet’s
brother to cancer, as well as the corruption and suffering endemic
in this world, what Dunn identifies in “Archaeology” as “the
confirmable gloom” and “everywhere colossal denials of blame.”
Dunn’s allegiance to chronicling life in his middle seventies, with
occasional backward glances at a slower pace of life, is bleak at
moments, but the bleakness has a bracing quality. throughout
the collection, individual lines or series of lines possessing that
tonic effect become both a wake-up call and a comfort. take, for
example, “Now, Finally” with its epigraph that reads: “Homage
to a late-in-life-marriage—for Philip”:

…as if love could ever be enough,

though without it, no hope, no renewals....

I’ve seen that good glow
emanating unfakable,

But the past won’t wholly disappear,
it can’t,
you’re everything you’ve ever done,
everyone you’ve known….

The poem turns appropriately sentimental at the close; but here
Dunn demonstrates what he’s so good at, an unsparing honesty
earned out of living without lying to others, or more importantly,
as he says in “Cleaning Up,” without lying to oneself:

I don’t want to be brave, or safe.
I resolve never to fake joy,
or pursue old grief. If I encounter opacity,
I’ll try to smash it with something clear....

Dunn’s poems, while proof of literature’s defensive power,
are fundamentally something more; and this brings me to the traditional
use of the phrase “lines of defense,” of which Dunn is
cannily aware. In medicine, the phrase applies to the three lines
of defense in the immune system that protect the body from disease.

Is Dunn claiming, then, that poetry has such salutary
power? Look at these lines from the middle of “Formalities for
the Long Road,” a poem in quatrains addressed to his wife:

…My love, you know

it’s difficult for me these days to be
a public man—shaky hands, hobbled gait.
Don’t let me hide. You know that racetrack
where no one races anymore,

where it’s impossible to lose or win—
I’ll be waiting inside by the finish line.
Come get me, and let’s leave from there.
I know there’s no straight road ahead....

The poem addresses old age’s humbling realities, but it also looks
to the infirmities and further deteriorations that lie ahead: “the
road/will only get darker as we go,/and nothing’s pure./But
white lines//are there to help us show the way....” Poetry, in all
of Dunn’s work, but especially here in this collection containing
so many poems addressed to his wife in her many guises, including
that of grandmother in the whimsical and absolutely wonderful
“Thank You,” is about creating community; and it is community,
in this case the bond between husband and wife, that is a line
of defense in the final journey toward death. those “white lines”
are like the lines inscribed here; they refer, too, to the ways in
which companionship will ease and enable the journey: “Hold
hands and tremble together/if you must but remember/each of
you is alone.” This is one such line of defense from “Before We
Leave,” which comes early on in the first of the collection’s four
sections.

Jacqueline Kolosov has new poetry and prose in Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, and Stand. Her third poetry collection is Memory of Blue (Salmon, 2014), and she has two YA novels forthcoming this year.