Lines of Defense: Poems by Stephen Dunn

Jacqueline Kolosov
| Reviews


“Out of Respect,” the second-to-last poem in the third section,
is dedicated to Donald Justice (1925-2004). In this tribute to
his friend and fellow poet, Dunn embeds his own ars poetica.
Unfolding in four six-line stanzas, the title repeats in every stanza
but the third:

Out of respect, I shed no tears for you,

who hated tears, you who once said
to a woman who came up to the podium
to say she was moved by your poems,
‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Ma’am,
I was after other things.’
Oh you were a charming, difficult man.

After the news came, I took your Selected
from the shelf, and there you were
again, master of the stilled life
and its tones, and everywhere the tact
of those rich refusals—what you held back,
no doubt out of respect for us
(italics mine).

Dunn honors Justice by singling out his restraint—“those rich
refusals.” In this late collection, Dunn demonstrates the power of
his own restraint, one enriched and lightened by his unfailing
humor, his ability to laugh at himself.

In “the Widening,” one of the last poems, Dunn is “holding
forth at the dinner table” among guests that include social scientists
“who wouldn’t know a good story/unless research confirmed
it good” as well as a clarinetist, “mostly a dour group.”
the dinner party, which is flagging, is momentarily buoyed when
Dunn’s daughter phones to say that her lost cat has been found:

…I told everyone, and the void
seemed to fill a little with good cheer….

That cheer proves temporary as Dunn goes on to tell a joke
about a fledgling crow that survived a hawk attack just that morning:
“No one smiled or laughed.” And in this simple sentence
Dunn reveals his ability to look at his own foibles, his petty
needs, in this case to claim center stage (for the moment anyway).
Yet the poem’s triumph, which is essential to the collection’s,
emerges later when the clarinetist corrects Dunn on a point
about music. to fill “the void” in the conversation, Dunn talks
about “the full stop” in music. the clarinetist qualifies: “there’s
no such thing as a full stop/in music—silence is a sound, an
afterlife/for anyone with an ear.” Dunn may profess naivety
about music in this poem, but his quietly musical collection
proves otherwise. Dunn, like Justice, understands the afterlife
that silence enables, an afterlife born out of all that is left unsaid.

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.

The Red Cape