The Not Yet Fallen World: New and Selected Poems, by Stephen Dunn, offers poems from his nineteen volumes of poetry and adds nine new poems; there’s a last section of poems written right before his death on June 24, 2021. Dunn’s poems are famous for his observations of the marvelous in the ordinary, and for his interplay of wit with earnestness.
If you’re new to Dunn’s poems, you’ll probably be charmed by opening lines like “anyone who begins a sentence with, ‘In all honesty …’ / is about to tell a lie” or “her name was Isadora and, like all cats, / she was a machine made of rubber bands / and muscle.” If you get sucked into the poem, though, you find ideas that will strike you as true, like that “if you say ‘you’re ugly’ to an ugly person—no credit / for honesty, which must always be a discovery, an act / that qualifies as an achievement,” which is something I think we’ve seen demonstrated too often in the last few years. While the tone of Dunn’s poems continually explores the territory between earnest and ironic, it’s clear that, for this poet, “the heart is to be spent.”
If you’re already an admirer of Dunn’s poetry, you’ll appreciate discovering late poems like “An Abbreviated Tour of the Not Yet Fallen World,” with its depiction of a modern airport:
the sky was forbidden
if I couldn’t prove
I was my name.
Or, my license out, shoes off,
almost in the clear,
an agent might hold up
nail clippers, toothpaste,
want to know my secret plans.
And you’ll enjoy new poems like “During the Pandemic,” when “many claimed for themselves / an understandable loneliness, / though for some it was a continuation / of a way of being, habitual, / tiresome, hard to befriend.”
There are a number of poetic meditations on morality, religion, and a sense of the divine, and they sometimes culminate in comic realizations, as when “it was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week, / but when she came home / with the ‘Jesus Saves’ button, we knew what art / was up, what ancient craft.” In “Honesty” we ponder whether “If there isn’t a God / maybe there’s just a sense we’re not / sufficiently large. / Maybe only through irreverence can we find / our true size.” “If the Poet” pits an imaginary poet against an imaginary priest, refusing to yield, “as Stevens said he shouldn’t.”
Sometimes the comic is the point, as in “John and Mary,” with its epigraph taken “from a freshman’s short story” and featuring different schoolbook examples of two people never meeting: “they were like postal clerks / in different zip codes, with different vacation time” or “they were like two dolphins in the immensity / of the Atlantic, one playful / the other stuck in a tuna net.” “The Imagined” is one of Dunn’s best comic poems, with its “imagined woman” who “makes the real woman / seem bare-boned” and its imagined man who is “present even when / you’re eating your omelet at breakfast” and the punchline of the ending. Sometimes the comic turns poignant, as in “Ambush at Five O’clock” when the speaker of the poem suffers what he finally sees as “the sadness of being stupid.”
There are moments in this volume, when, no matter the topic, an emotion comes through so clearly it seems simple. The 1993 poem “To a Terrorist” is offered “as one / might offer his father’s ashes / to the wind, a gesture / when there’s nothing else to do.”
Dunn is a close observer of the small gesture and the everyday, especially in poems like “Here and There” when “sometimes dawn just brings another / day, full of minor / pleasures and small complaints.” In “Essay on the Personal” he considers his own characteristic approach, saying “it’s a matter of precision, / what it feels like / to kiss someone or to walk / out the door” and concluding that “we’re left with style, a particular / way of standing and saying.”
Dunn is not afraid to get political, as in “Response to a Letter from France” in which he says “we’ve even learned / to live amid Republicans; the avarice / of gypsy moths is only a little more / mindless, effective.” And although the speaker of his poems is often removed from the chaos of the world, the quiet in which we can contemplate a poem like Wallace Stevens’ is shattered by echoes and updates:
The house was quiet and the world vicious,
peopled as it is with those deprived
of this or that necessity, and with weasels, too,
and brutes, who don’t seem to need
a good excuse
The speaker of these poems admits it isn’t enough to observe the world from a distance but fumbles inconsequentially with taking action: “a child spills her milk; / I’m on my knees cleaning it up— / sponge, squeeze, I change nothing, / just move it around.”
A few of the poems seem dated, like “Shatterings,” about a tenured professor so privileged he can say “my class is called Whatever I Feel Like / Talking About. No matter what the subject, / over the years it’s been the only course / I’ve ever taught …. My job is to shatter a few things.” Other poems, like “Everything Else in the World,” are dated and yet still relevant, with lines like “all I wanted was a job like a book / so good I’d be finishing it / for the rest of my life.” The speaker of “A Postmortem Guide (1)” admits, however, that he knows “how obscene it is / for some of us to complain.” And in “A Postmortem Guide (2)” the speaker realizes that he has “changed / but not as much as the world has.”
It’s hard not to like this poet’s attitude towards some things, like when he says that “some of us were listing / books that we hate. I couldn’t think of any” because he has “resolved to try hard / not to become like the whip-poor-will, / its beautiful lilt turning monotonous / as it kept calling out its own name,” trying instead to resemble a mockingbird and asking “how do we know / what we love?” It’s hard not to identify with someone who recounts a story of being told to “be yourself” and wonders “who would want to know me then, / … who would forgive me?”
The dogs in Dunn’s “Don’t Do That” reminded me at first of the dog in Stephen Dobyns’ poem “How To Like It,” the one who wants to slip the leash and knock over all the trash cans, but these dogs are less restless, urging the speaker to “calm down, after a while they open the door / and let you out, they pet your head, and everything / you might have held against them is gone, / and you’re good friends again. Stay, they said.”
“Loosestrife,” the title poem of one of Dunn’s volumes, is one of his masterpieces. It’s full of metaphors like this one:
The impatient, upstart crocuses
and daffodils fell once again
for the lies of March.
They simply wanted to exist.
The warm sun must have said Now,
and they gave themselves
to that first, hardly refusable touch.
History was whispering
at least another frost,
but who listens to the hushed sobrieties
of the old?
The metaphors are often followed by observations, like that “we live in a postcard … / cropped, agreeably, to deceive; / beyond its edges / broken glass at the schoolyard, / routine boredom, decency, spite.”
The title flower is mentioned when
The weather urged us out, away from worry,
that indoor work. Cut-offs and rollerblades
met us daringly at the curb, American
as pick-up trucks with rifle racks.
If we walked far enough and looked:
Loosestrife, goldenrod, pixie-moss.
I knew loosestrife, I knew so many such things
Before I knew their names.
What the speaker knows emerges as part of a larger perspective as the poem winds on:
A philosopher, musing cosmically, might think
we were people who needed to be disturbed,
would say no truth ever reveals itself
to those sipping something on their porch.
I hated the cosmic as I hated a big sound
on a quiet afternoon.
Even while he sits on his porch, the speaker knows that “far away, men were pulling bodies from debris.” He tries to answer a student’s question, “a senior hot for elsewhere,” about why he lives where and how he does, and the poem ends as he keeps trying to answer honestly, thinking of all the versions of what he should have said, like that “a place sometimes / is beautiful because of who was good to you / in the acrimonious air.”
The Not Yet Fallen World is a good introduction to Dunn or a collection that will remind us of how much we love the outlook of a poet who, like the people in “The Metaphysicians of South Jersey,” would wake up every morning to “list the many small things / … observed and thought, unable to stop talking / about this place and what a world it was.”
The Not Yet Fallen World: New and Selected Poems, by Stephen Dunn. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, May 2022. 272 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
Jeanne Griggs is a reader, writer, traveler, ailurophile, and violinist in the Knox County Symphony. She directed the writing center at Kenyon College from 1991-2022. Jeanne earned her BA at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, and her doctorate at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her conference papers include “A Survey of Reanimation, Resurrection, and Necromancy in Fiction since Frankenstein,” and “Climate Change Predictions in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” Published by Broadstone Books in 2021, Jeanne’s volume of poetry is entitled Postcard Poems. Jeanne reviews poetry and fiction at Necromancyneverpays.com.
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