In 1974, Stephen Dunn's first collection of poems, "Looking for Holes in the Ceiling," was published, and he attracted much positive attention as an imaginative writer of witty, tight, surprising surrealist imagist poems. His theme, from the beginning, was survival--through magic, through love, through language. He wrote in his poem "10. Traveling,"
If you travel alone, hitch-hiking,
sleeping in woods,
make a cathedral of the moonlight
that reaches you, and lie down in it.
. . .
You are a traveler,
you know the open, hostile smiles
of those stuck in their lives.
In this sixth collection of poems, "Local Time," Dunn continues his theme of survival, but with almost no belief left in himself as a magician, and the result is a book which might seem disappointing to his readers who loved the richness of his earlier poems. Even William Matthews, an admirer and friend of Dunn, writes in his blurb on the back of the book, "It is not that Stephen Dunn writes in 'Local Time' with less assurance, charm or force than marked his earlier work, but that he has engaged his preoccupations."
What Dunn seems to have moved toward is more involvement with mundane subjects, the stuff of bourgeois life, and while the theme continues to be that of survival, there is much less certainty that it is possible.
I've been trying to build
a house of cards amid a house
. . .
One should be alone
to build a house of cards.
. . .
One should have none
of the clutter that comes
from living a life.
And the magic is gone. There is in this first poem the acknowledgment that the kind of magic he wants to achieve, represented by the airy house of cards, is one not possible in everyday bourgeois life. And throughout the book, the poems carry on this theme, as if he sees the paralysis of his situation too clearly to be able to do anything about it.
In one of the best poems in the book, "Living With Hornets," he says "They have only one season . . . / are driven by what they don't understand" and in another wonderful poem, "At the Smithville Methodist Church," which chronicles agnostic parents who allow their child to go to vacation bible school and find that she believes all the religious doctrine she is taught, he concludes the poem with the lines, "There was nothing to do / but drive, ride it out, sing along / in silence."
These poems, and many others in the book, are filled with lines like the poignant lines from the conclusion of my favorite poem in the collection, "The Substitute," which is about his daughter putting on a cockney accent and pretending to be English for her substitute teacher and then having to keep on with the role all week and finally not wanting to do it any more but being forced by her parents to face the consequences of her own acts.
She left bent over like a charwoman, but near
the end of the driveway
we saw her right herself, becomes the girl
who had to be another girl, a substitute
in it now for the duration.
The theme is survival, but the world no longer presents the challenge, the excitement, which allows you to lie down and wrap yourself in moonlight, knowing that you are protected by your own magic. Now, the speaker in the poems has become one of the outsiders of his early poem; he has become one "of those stuck in their lives."
It is fascinating to see this full circle of perception completed in Dunn's poetry. He started as the magician, the traveler who can cheat the wizard or sit down with the devil. Now, he is the man locked into a life which obviously has no magic at all. There is no anger, or even hostility in these poems, nor is there actual desperation, despair or even stoicism. Only acceptance and occasional longing. The book has a slightly bittersweet, nostalgic quality about it which undoubtedly attracted Dave Smith, the poet who selected it for the National Poetry Series, who himself is a master of such poems of nostalgia.
The book ends on a small note of hope:
Something was out there,
he was sure. The sparrows,
no less foolish or wise,
returned to the yard and sang.
For me, the greatest strength of "Local Time" is that it is the closing of the full circle Stephen Dunn began, the completion of a poetic journey. It gives me hope that something new and more experimental, and with new magic, might be possible for his future work.