Everything Else in the World
by Stephen Dunn
W.W. Norton & Co. 93 pgs.
ISBN 13: 978-0-393-06239-7 © 2006
A Review by Norman Lang Siegel
Once again in his fourteenth book of poetry, his third since winning a Pulitzer for Different Hours, Stephen Dunn presents us with poems that can be enjoyed effortlessly, but which also offer “privileged glimpses” of the sublime upon deserved close re-readings. Reading his poems is like looking through a pinhole which corrects some personal error of refraction, but which obscures just as it reveals. In the last three stanzas of the title poem he directs us to read the large letters in desire’s eye chart:
All I wanted was a job like a book
so good I’d be finishing it
for the rest of my life.
Had my education failed me?
I felt a hankering for the sublime,
its dangerous subversions
of the daily grind.
Oh I took a dull, well-paying job.
History major? the interviewer said, I think
you might be good at designing brochures.
I was. Which filled me with desire
for almost everything else in the world.
Each time I read “You’d Be Right” its meaning changes. It has all the possibilities of a dissociative poem deceptively embedded in a narrative. In the first half of the poem I first thought I was reading a confession whose only disguise was its use of the third person:
He often needed two women. Just one—
how unfair to expect from her so much!
Intelligence before and after sex,
a certain naughtiness during,
gifts of companionship and solitude.
But he liked the day-to-day of marriage
and its important unimportances,
quiet moments made livable
by the occasional promise of a fiesta.
And though he knew he wasn’t enough
for her either, and always assumed
she had similar thoughts, if not secrets,
nevertheless you may be thinking cad,
maybe even monster,…
At which point the reader would be right to consider the subject of the poem a cad. But in its second half the poem turns back again to its title and tells us to consider the fine print and our own lives:
…you who’ve been happy,
or differently unhappy, or obeyed all your life
some good rule. And you’d be right
if you guessed his wife’s eventual coolness,
her turning away, and, when he didn’t leave,
the slow rise of the other woman’s disappointment,
which would turn to anger, then to sadness.
You’d be right, but can you imagine what joys
accrue to the needy over a lifetime of seeking love?
Can you say you’re not envious, or that you’re sure
it wasn’t worth what he risked and lost?
“… You who’ve been happy, / or differently unhappy …” brings to mind Chekhov’s claim that all happy families are alike but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. It is subversively unclear whether “differently unhappy” refers to some misery other than “an alibi fusing with a wish”, or if it is the closest one can get to being happy. Just what would we be right about: our opinion of someone’s affair or our own lives? Since we can come up with different answers about each and still be right, as the all-seeing but not necessarily all-knowing narrator suggests - the poem makes us confront not just some gossip but also the existential dilemma. Now, re-read the first half of the poem. Which of the two women described is the wife and which the mistress? Is there really another woman or is the mistress some other passion? Is solitude his mistress? And we should also ask if the two women are “just one.” Then this poem, like a man offering roses for what seems at first no good reason, is not a confession of an affair but of one man’s inability to attend faithfully all the aspects of a love he feels he does not deserve.
Stephen Dunn understands that readers “need to have ideas / of their own.” His intention is to signify to us something he has not intended. His poetry makes us part of the search for “the lost thing” along “the river that confuses / search dogs”. The search, however, is not necessarily for the truth:
It’s clear that a story not tilted
will rarely stand up. But sometimes
I find myself in the land of is, helpless
before the tyranny of this
or that sufficient thing
In “The Soul’s Agent” the poet explores the cliché that confession is good for the soul:
Trust us, your secrets differentiate you
from no one, but the soul awakens
a little when it hears them.
But he adds and obeys V. S. Pritchett’s warning that “you get no credit for living.” In the poem he leaves out the first half of the quote,“It's all in the art”, a case his poetry has already made.
I have spent the last three months enjoying again Stephen Dunn’s poetry and prose. After reading Everything Else in the World it was obvious that it was “a book / so good I’d be finishing it / for the rest of my life.”
Norman Lang Siegel is a physician and poetry scholar who practices Medicine in West Virginia.