The Muse

(An International Journal of Poetry)

Volume-1                                              december-2011                                                    Number-2


The Fractured Male and the Healing Home in the Poetry of Stephen Dunn

                                                                                                                                                      by Dr. Luke Schlueter, (Dept. of English, Cuyahoga Community College)


(Abstract: One of the richest dimensions of poet Stephen Dunn’s work is how he dramatizes with dexterity and insight a conflicted sense of masculinity. At times this dramatization is informed by a conflicted, provisional relationship to a world from which he feels alienated. It is at other times informed by a kind of self-alienation arising from Dunn’s doubt over the possibility of self-knowledge. And it is at almost all times haunted by the desire for some manner of connection and attunement that might transcend such ephemeral encounters as he experiences, a desire that is occasionally arrested in domesticity and the temporary reprieve offered by conjugal love.  These dramatizations are most clearly evidenced in his Pulitzer-Prize winning volume, Different Hours,)


Stephen Dunn’s success as a poet is perhaps chiefly due to a lyric voice that makes good on Pound’s challenge that poetry be as well written as prose.  Pound’s statement in its historical context suggests that poetry had lost its true estate and was in need of a disciplined form of saying that would enable it to reclaim its condition of significant speech.  When applied to the universe of concerns and practices that animate contemporary poetry, we can point to Dunn as a poet who, while writing with elegance, clarity, and beauty, is fundamentally concerned with the shape and the texture of ordinary human existence and who has perfected a mode of saying appropriate to that concern.  Dunn in this way exemplifies Carl Dennis’ statement that “Although the truth of the poet is particular, good poets believe that their concerns are representative, that they can make efforts to clarify life in ways that others can find useful,” (65), and the similar assessment of Raymond Williams who claims that “a writer’s job is with individual meanings, and with making these meanings common” (24). 

Dunn himself comments upon the value of this kind of poetry in an essay where he states that “Poets should not homogenize their poems, nor should they simplify their diction for the sake of wider appeal.  In art, excellence is all. But I do think in the back of our minds, if not in the front, we need to believe that our poetry is for others, as many others as can make themselves hospitable to it” (“Bringing” 34).  Indeed, the fluidity of Dunn’s lyric verse, the ease with which it unfolds over the course of a given lyric, counters the dominant emphasis in contemporary poetry on linguistic experimentation.  One of the legacies of modernity is the notion that poetry, if it is to have any lasting value, must be difficult.  While there is much to be said for a poetry that challenges conventional poetic discourse and to be said against a poetry that sacrifices complexity for simplicity, Dunn’s poetry, while it borrows from the rhythms of prose in dramatizing states of mind that will have recognizable features, has an unassuming power and subtle complexity. 

This power and complexity is exemplified in those poems in which Dunn dramatizes his negotiations with the terms of his masculine self-identity.  These dramatizations are at times informed by a conflicted, provisional relationship to a world from which he feels alienated; are at other times informed by a kind of self-alienation arising from Dunn’s doubt over the possibility of self-knowledge; and are at almost all times haunted by the desire for some manner of connection and attunement that might transcend such ephemeral encounters as he experiences, a desire that is occasionally arrested in domesticity and the temporary reprieve offered by conjugal love. Those poems in which Dunn articulates a complex, nuanced sense of his struggles to come terms with a conflicted masculine subjectivity is funded by the degree to which Dunn presents in gendered terms the complex emotional and psychic negotiations that arise from this subjectivity.

In his essay “Bringing the Strange Home,” Dunn associates the experience of fragmentation and the desire for unity that it belies with the status of contemporary culture: 

We’re a fragmented culture, we no longer have a belief system in common, and most of us are troubled guests in one way or another.  Yet our ‘passionate pursuits of the real’ need to convince our most willing and intelligent readers that, however fragmented we may be, we at least share that reality, that our problems are essentially the same. If we don’t share, say, a religion, we do share an essential strangeness. (33) 

I want to pursue Dunn’s insight by examining how the experience of fragmentation he identifies as being a cultural construct can equally be read as arising from Dunn’s agonistic attempt to come to terms with a conflicted masculinity.  The end of “For Fathers of Girls,” a poem in which Dunn celebrates the birth of his daughter, reads:      

Suddenly we are fathers

of girls: purply, covered with slime

we could kiss.  There’s a cry,

and the burden of living up

to ourselves is upon us again. (26-30)

Dunn identifies himself here with men who may be fully engaged in socio-economic life, but who have had a far more difficult time living up to their identities as fathers and husbands.  One of the pressing issues in the critique of masculinity attempts to account for this lack, which is generally thought to be informed by impoverished cultural ideals of the role of husband and father. Dunn’s intervention in this discourse can be charted not only by the many poems that dramatize this lack, but also by the many poems that gesture toward its overcoming. The poem “The Carpenter’s Song,” for example, which functions as a kind of personal manifesto, ends on this hopeful note:

               And let my hands be thick

               badges of power

               rarely used, my first an inner first

                the size of a heart,

               and let this be visible to men.

               And let the old deaf dog

               sense me coming a long way off,

               ready to forgive anything I’ve done—

               and let me call this: some goddamn luck. (51-59) 

The poem can be read as a clarion call for a masculinity that recognizes the potential of physical force and even makes allowances for its occasional use, but idealizes ultimately the force of  more spiritual values—those of human compassion and connectedness.  But even so the speaker presents these values as masculine ideals that he himself must strive to attain.  Moments like these indicate Dunn’s sense of a masculine subjectivity that is aware of its own limitations and blind spots but perhaps for precisely that reason is capable of imagining a higher, more humanistic ideal. 

These issues and concerns ground Dunn’s perhaps most accomplished volume of poetry, Different Hours.  The first poem in the volume, “Before the Sky Darkens,” signals what will be the dominant tone of the volume in the ironic detachment of a speaker whose second person form of address reflects a subject who is both engaged with but oddly detached from his psycho-domestic dramas.  Dunn adopts this voice in order to gain some distance from the conflicted desires and emotions that many of the poems express as the speaker negotiates the tension between his masculinity and the demands of domesticity.  While Dunn’s previous work describes a mostly hopeful sense of the possibility of masculine redefinition and reorganization, many of the poems in Different Hours suggest a sense of defeat and resignation. The second stanza of “Before the Sky Darkens” exemplifies this sense:

               More and more you learn to live

               with the unacceptable.

               You sense the ever-hidden God

               retreating even farther,

               terrified or embarrassed.

               You might as well be a clown,

               big silly clothes, no evidence of desire. (10-16)

Dunn’s ever-hidden God, read as a representation of the traditional God of patriarchy in retreat from a culture that no longer recognizes his authority, can similarly be read as a projection of Dunn’s own feelings about his sense of powerlessness.  While Dunn previously might have viewed this as a challenge to revisit the terms of his subjectivity, in this case there is only the experience of losing purpose and function, an alienated social position that leaves him feeling as if he were “a clown, big silly clothes.”  Such a reading is warranted by how the speaker positions himself as the traditional male who would take his “best-girl” to Saturday night-events, even if these be “sunsets, incipient storms, the tableaus / of melancholy” (1-2).  The final stanza reads:

               You open your windows to good air

               blowing in from who knows where,

               which you gulp and deeply inhale

               as if you have a death sentence. You have.

               All your life, it seems, you’ve been appealing it.

               Night sweats and useless stratagems. Reprieves. (23-28) 

The optimism of Dunn’s earlier work is revised here into a significantly gloomier sense of the possibility of masculine self-revision. The experience of masculinity, when viewed over the course of a life, reads as a death sentence, one which the speaker has been unsuccessfully appealing all his life. 

Gender theory is interested not only in the question of to what extent gender is constructed through the discursive relations that obtain in a society at any given point, but also in to what extent human beings can change the terms of their subjectivity.  The question seems to take an additional urgency when focused upon men who, as the argument goes, have had little incentive to change in light of their historically privileged position in western culture. The changing nature of contemporary society, however, has exerted an extraordinary pressure upon men to change – to grapple with the terms of their subjectivity. Even so, it may chiefly be the case, as bell hooks claims in a recent book, that “many men are afraid to change,” and that “To know love, men must be able to let go the will to dominate.  They must be able to choose life over death.  They must be willing to change” (xvii).  hooks’ claim, which argues for what men stand to gain from feminism, neatly dovetails with what Dunn himself has concluded: “Every male has a stake in feminism . . .  Self-interest, if not basic decency, should convince men that a fair-minded feminism is also their liberation” (“Journal” 145).  Dunn, however, then complicates this admission with Wildean flair:  “All of us, finally, free enough to be scoundrels” (145).  If Dunn here apparently gives with one hand what he takes back with the other, the dialectic that Dunn articulates in such poems as “The Carpenter’s Song” suggests the possibility that men, if not able to altogether reject the subjective markers of traditional masculine ideals, are at least able to give them a significant check.  Such recent poems as “Before the Sky Darkens,” however, express a sense of the perhaps unbridgeable gap that lies between the desire for change and its possibility.  How to read the defeatist self-dramatization that enters into this later work becomes an intriguing question. Are we to believe that, for Dunn, the possibility of masculine self-revision is finally a delusion? Or are perhaps we hearing precisely the poet’s struggle for self-transcendence, a struggle that by its very nature is informed by the pressures of a selfhood in flux?

The poem “Optimism” dramatizes the defeat of self-transformation by exchanging the speaker-prophet voice of “Before the Sky Darkens” with that of the confessionalist.  As in much of Dunn’s best work, however, Dunn maintains an ironic distance between himself and the experiences he communicates.  The opening two lines of the poem remark upon the contrast between the speaker’s public and private selves:

   My friend the pessimist thinks I’m optimistic

   because I seem to believe in the next good thing.

    But I see rueful shadows everywhere. (1-3)

While the pathetic fallacy is evident in Dunn’s “rueful shadows,” what that musty critical term fails to capture is the ironic, post-confessional tone of the emotional disclosure.  The OED defines “rueful” as “expressing sorrow, genuine or humorously affected,” and indeed, the tone of these lines suggests a playfulness that undercuts the force of the speaker’s self-revelations.  The impression is deepened in the following lines.                             When the sun rises I think of collisions and AK-47’s.

               It’s my mother’s fault, who praised and loved me,

               sent me into the dreadful world as if

               It would tell me a story I’d understand. (4-7)

A sense of failed narratives is crucial here and with it the suggestion of the speaker’s failure to inhabit a stable identity.  If the speaker relates these failed narratives to the traditionally masculine terrain of war, he also understands, later in the poem, that they have equally to do with the failure of friendship, romance, and art.  The speaker concludes, again in mock-seriousness—in “rueful” terms— that all of these failures are “my mother’s fault, every undeserved sweetness” (17).   The poem plays throughout with pop-psychology and its emphasis upon self-esteem. The speaker of the poem at the same time positions himself as a subject of psychoanalysis with its emphasis upon revisiting early childhood scenarios, thus the speaker blaming his failures on those “undeserved sweetnesses” of his mother. The rhetoric as such effectively opens up a rich vein of discourse concerning the contemporary state of masculine subjectivity.  Introspection is possible for the speaker, indeed inescapable, but the speaker’s conflicted attitude toward the value or ultimate use of such self-knowledge is in many ways the real subject of the poem.

Different Hours  is remarkable for the variety of tropes and poses Dunn adopts in dramatizing features of his masculine subjectivity.  In “Odysseus’s Secret” he uses one of the more complex figures in the Western literary tradition for this purpose.  Odysseus functions in the Western literary imagination as a complex counterpoint to the honor-driven heroics of such figures as Achilles and Hector. Careful readers of the  Iliad and the Odyssey know that this contrast can be overstated.  Achilles, for example, expresses in the most public fashion profound sorrow over the loss of his friend, Patroclus, and Homer has Hector bid a tender and moving farewell to his wife and son before rejoining the Trojan War.  Odysseus, nonetheless, represents in general a more fluid masculinity, one capable of transforming itself into whatever form seems expedient at the moment.  In “Odysseus’ Secret,” then, Dunn focuses upon how Odysseus’ subjectivity is modified by the need to withstand the troubles he faces in returning home.  In light of this need to “survive, withstand,” the speaker of the poem wonders “How could govern, even love, compete?” (13)  This need combined with Odysseus’ physical distance from Penelope has resulted in Odysseus being distanced from himself.  Dunn uses this sense of self-alienation to thematize masculinity in general where “A man finds his shipwrecks, / tells himself the necessary stories,” (28-29), suggesting that men are driven to seek out conflict of the kind experienced by Odysseus. There is also perhaps a subtle play in the poem on the idea of men being by nature polygamous, albeit with the suggestion that polygamy is a state of disorder that is only finally resolved in a concept of home.  Thus it is that

   Odysseus boarded that Phaeacian ship, suddenly tired

   of the road’s dangerous enchantments,

   and sailed through storm and wild sea

   as if his beloved were all that ever mattered. (34-37)

In its hopeful suggestion of the psychic rehabilitation offered by home, the poem finally suggests that a conflicted sense of self is not the final term in the construction of masculine subjectivity. The speaker, once at odds with himself and the world, might finally discover in domesticity a promise of restoration. But the “as if” of the last line is crucial. The speaker understands that he is working with a script, acting a part. Whether he can ever meaningfully inhabit the role of husband and father is left an open question.

One more example should suffice to indicate both Dunn’s sense of conflicted masculine subjectivity just as it gestures, like “Odysseus’ Secret,” toward the possibility of recovery.  A keen sense of disaffection pervades the poem “Capriccio Italian” where Dunn, although in a foreign country, despairs over a more pervasive cultural condition in Western consciousness where esteem is equated with superficial identity markers arising from an image-driven consumer culture where all is surface.  Masculine self-identity becomes a matter of style: 

   You buy the most expensive tie you’ve ever bought,

   silk and wide, blue with subtle, well-spaced dots.

   You try on a flamboyant scarf. 

   In the mirror someone foolish stares back at you.

   You take it anyhow. (12-16) 

“You take it anyhow” marks the climax of this small drama.  The sense of resignation, of acquiescing to a passive subjectivity deprived of will, is prominent.  The line is complete in itself.  “You take it anyhow” despite knowing that you are diminished in accepting the terms of this self-construction. The ultimate lamentation of the material man is sounded: “How absurd to think anyone can escape / being judged for what he doesn’t have” (18-19).   Dunn knows the material man well; he inhabits his voice in this poem.  While women have made great progress in claiming a subjectivity not linked to the structures of power and domination associated with patriarchy, the material man of Dunn’s poem has made an inverse journey.  The dream of subjective fullness is exchanged for the allure of the surface image.  What rescues Dunn’s speaker, however, is an awareness of what has been lost in this exchange.  He can finally identify at the end of the poem with the swallows who “won’t disappoint— / swoop and dive as they did the night before / mindless, wild, wholly on control” (28-30). These culminating lines gesture toward a new kind of man, one both in control and wild, mindless and yet fully himself, a paradoxical integration of powers that work to construct a subjectivity that is finally at home in homelessness, at home in being home everywhere.  Indeed, the immediately preceding lines are grounded by the speaker’s desire to “break off bits of bread and leave no trail,” a desire which transforms the potentially shattering situation of Hansel and Gretel into an opportunity for freedom and release. 

This more hopeful theme is signaled in several poems in the volume – poems where a despairing, defeatist voice is confronted by one that recognizes the reprieve signaled by home.  Dunn centers “Old Dogs,” the poem immediately following “Capriccio Italian,” with a quote by Dinah Washington: “Because you can’t teach an old dog news tricks [. . .] you got to get yourself some new dogs” (12-14). An unsettled issue in the discourse of gender is to what degree biology drives our experience of what constitutes maleness and femaleness.  Dunn would seem to accept a degree of determinism with regard to gender identity, that there is a biological substratum of gender identity that can’t easily be modified.  As a close reading of his poetry makes clear, however, Dunn won’t rest content with this belief.  Dunn recollects in one of his essays that “In the early seventies, when I was teaching Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, I was fond of defining civilization to my classes as an agreement by the many to give up, for the general good, what we really wished to do” (“Poetry” 196).  Dunn is clearly still aware, however, of the many and various ways in which human beings, and specifically men, continuing doing precisely what “they really wished to do.”  Again, however, Dunn is aware of the costs to men, both civilizational and personal, of refusing the invitation to struggle with the terms of their subjectivity, an invitation that for men challenges basic conceptions of masculine self-identity.  Indeed, the dialectic between biological necessity and self-shaping, central to the discourse of gender, is an invitation more often refused than not by ideals of masculinity informed by the “boys will be boys” mentality, a conception that doesn’t translate equally for girls.  The feminist critique of gender relative to socio-cultural idealizations and practices has precisely to do with plotting out what is possible and desirable along this continuum. 

The question of whether authentic, deep-rooted change is possible for men, then, is the subject of “Old Dogs.” Dunn wants on the one hand to sympathize with an anxious masculinity exemplified in the poem by those

   Trotskys of relationships,

   perpetual revolution their motto,

   their impatient hearts

   dangerous to all that’s complacent. (1-4)

Dunn acknowledges that “It’s human nature, after all, to want / to put an end to things” (9-10).  And yet in what follows Dunn wonderfully captures the dialectic between biological necessity and self-shaping where men both “want to put an end to things” and yet at the same time “want to start up again.”  He thus expresses sympathy for the imagined target of Shore’s commentary, stating

               If I’d known any one of her old dogs

               no doubt I’d understand why he might

               have wanted just to lie on the couch

               and go for short walks. (17-20)

Dunn’s playful revision of the lazy husband construct, “I’ve wanted to do nothing / so often as I’ve wanted to rise up / rush into the night” (21-23) maintains the underlying tone of anxiety.  The poem then takes an interesting turn as Dunn calls attention to another popular construct, the idea that “men use love to get sex, women use sex to get love.” Dunn, however, states that “Falling in love produces such anxiety, / my friend says, thank God there’s sex / for some occasional repose” (24-26). The point is emphasized in the conclusion to the poem where he claims he understands

               year after year

               doing a few same things

               in the same house with the same person,

               settled and unsettled, in for the long haul. (30-33)

This idea of repose in settled love is the poem’s answer to the anxious masculinity of those “Old Dogs.” The speaker is finally not defined by an anxious and endless turning out but by his openness to monogamy as a place in which to work out those anxieties.  It is the “same few things / in the same house with the same person” that rescues Dunn from an anxiety driven, anti-relational masculinity.

Dunn in such poems might be speaking directly to those men who wouldn’t pick up a volume of poetry to save their lives.  This is unfortunate, because Dunn’s poems have much to offer.  His is a trustworthy voice that avoids didacticism for a more subtle exploration of modern masculinity, one that suggests what a more fully integrated masculinity might look like.  His is, strangely, a voice that eschews the exalted tone of lyric poetry for that of the literal “everyman.”  What makes his “everyman” unique, however, is an emphasis upon the desirability of imaginatively engaging with the terms of his subjectivity. 

Masculine subjectivity is finally for Dunn a dialectic between culture and self, between biology and consciousness, between the body and the soul.  Dunn arguably resolves these dualisms in a conception of the domicile.  But the vast majority of poems in Different Hours resist any such simple resolution.  While Dunn dramatizes a homecoming in such poems as “Odysseus’ Secret” and “Old Dogs,” one that would seem to offer a reprieve from the anxieties of a fragmented subjectivity, these poems at the same time suggest that the self carries its past with it.  There is no ultimate escape from the internal narrative that drives Dunn’s dominant speaker, a narrative that is structured by a sense of dislocation and anxiety that haunts whatever satisfactions are momentarily available.  Thus Dunn concludes the poem “Rubbing” with the reflection that

                         If beauty comes

   it comes startled, hiding scars,

   out of what can barely be endured. (16-18)

And, with more explicit reference to home, in the poem “Visiting the Master” the would-be disciple to spiritual master wants to know whether privation is finally the key to enlightenment.  The final stanza reads:

               Oh, return to zero, the master said.

               Use what’s lying around the house.

               Make it simple and sad.  (29-31)

Both conclusions work against reading home for Dunn as being anything so simple as a retreat, as a presence against the absence of the world outside.  Perhaps the culminating moment in Dunn’s sense of the value home has for him, if we might broaden home in this case to mean “hometown,” is in the penultimate stanza of “His Town”:

               No safety in the universe.  He’d stay put.

               Besides, he liked to be in the mists of tall trees

               and in the mists of what made him hungry for more.

               He liked the mistiness of familiar boundaries

               so he could let in, secretly, what he loved. (18-22)

The governing motif in the poem, “mist,” suggests a state somewhere between presence and absence, a place where the masculine self can comfortably negotiate the terms of his existence without external pressures.  Perhaps this is what Dunn ultimately wants to say about a culture of self-analysis and male self-improvement in which the public gesture is privileged above the private and in which self-revelation is considered the sine qua non of authentic relationship.  Indeed, one final comment on the discourse of masculinity as it has played out in recent years is the suggestion that men, if they are to be more fully human, must become more like women.  Men as such are challenged to articulate their feelings, their emotions, the terrain of their subjective lives in socially constructive ways.  Dunn, speaking chiefly on behalf of himself but perhaps for beleaguered males everywhere who are interpreted under the sign of feminism, can offer his poems as the surest sign that subjectivity is not for him self-evident: that masculine identity is, as it is for all human beings at all stages of life, constantly in the process of being revised.  Men can, Dunn may want to say, change, and do change, even if change happens according to terms which they themselves can best understand.      



Works Cited

Dennis, Carl. “The Voice of Authority.” Poets Teaching Poets. Ed. Gregory Orr and 

       Ellen Bryant Voight. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. 65-83. Print.

Dunn, Stephen. “Before the Sky Darkens.” Different Hours. New York: W.W. Norton,

       2000. 19. Print.

---“Bringing the Strange Home.” Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. Rochester, NY:

       BOA Editions. 17-35. Print. American Readers Series, No. 4.

---“The Carpenters Song.” New and Selected Poems 1974 – 1994. New York: W.W.

       Norton, 1994. 60. Print.

---“For Fathers of Girls.” New and Selected Poems 1974 – 1994. 60.

---“His Town.” Different Hours. 97--98.

---“Journal Notes.” Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. 145-149.

---“Odysseus’s Secret.” Different Hours. 32-33.

---“Old Dogs.” Different Hours. 30-31.

---“Optimism.” Different Hours. 40.

---“Poetry and Manners.” Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs. 193-201.

---“Rubbing.” Different Hours. 81-82.

---“Visiting the Master.” Different Hours. 91-92.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York, NY: Atria

       Books, 2004.

Williams, Raymond. “Culture is Ordinary.” The Raymond Williams Reader. Ed. John

       Higgins. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001. 10-24. Print.