I first read Stephen Dunn’s Different Hours and then his Selected Poems 1974 - 1994. Since then, I’ve gone back to read other collections in full. One such collection is Local Time. Reading poems in the context of their original collection it is interesting to see the grouping and the general development the poet creates.
In the first section Dunn uses the body as that which imposes distances between us, especially between men and women. In “Letter Home” a woman says,
Shall we admit
that because of our bodies
your story can never be mine,
mine never yours?”
This is the disclosure in the first section: the story we tell, the philosophy we adopt, is imposed by the body. There are vague moments its boundaries blur, as in the half waking state at dawn in the poem “Halves,” or there can be commiseration over the body’s “little ailments and aches.” But physiology determines philosophy. The poem, “Under the Black Oaks,” in the concluding section, reasserts this by opening,
Because the mind will defend anything
it has found the body doing.
It is a central theme of the collection.
The middle section shows how we struggle to stretch out from the body. It’s called “Stories” and shows how the mind tries to control or invent its psyche independently of biological necessities. For instance, the opening poem is called “Parable of the Fictionist” and opens saying
He wanted to own his own past,
be able to manage it more than it managed him.
But the contradiction of this control of the past is that it makes it a kind of lonely stasis, a palace of disillusionment, which is only escaped by the imposition of something beyond control. This poem concludes,
he sometimes longed
for what he’d dare not alter,
or couldn’t, something immutable
or so lovely he might be changed
by it, nameless but with a name
he feared waits until you’re worthy,
then chooses you.
That is the current of this whole section: the stories we tell about ourselves compete with the stories imposed on us by others, by biology, by accident and the section gradually moves toward accepting the stories imposed on us, of embracing them, as in the final poem, “The Return,” where the voices of the dead come back but instead of needing to assert the self against them, the speaker can
say father and be small
and mean it again.
My favorite section is the final section where the sense of what is mystical or spiritual is identifiable in small terms, in “local time.” But Dunn also penetrates into the absences we endure, how he says of the soul that it’s something he most notices when it’s gone. I particularly love “Under the Black Oaks.” It’s one of my favorite Dunn poems. My mind hears echoes with Frost’s poem “Come In,” with that poem’s defiance, though Dunn’s poem doesn’t confront death, but the need to justify action. In a way, there is something Nietzschean about this poem and the whole last section. That is, it asserts the mind’s reasons as forms of physiological self-defense. The disappointment in the poem “Completion,” the acquiescence leading to embrace in “Living with Hornets” — in all of these there is an “amor fati.” However, all of them also reveal the danger of the outside world pitted against the safety of the enclosed private world, though that private world is also full of disillusionment. The poems say that risk is necessary for joy and creativity. The final image in the title poem shows a dog in a house aware of some lurking danger outside while birds, said to be no less foolish or wise, return to the lawn and begin to sing. The implication is that it is better to be outside singing with the birds in the midst of danger than inside with the dog whimpering over it. And this is better not because of some philosophical posturing but because that is the way to live joyfully. It is, at best biological necessity, at worst, simply accident.
There is an irony in the title of the collection in that the small world of local time collapses in on itself, becomes so self-protective it is contaminated with disappointment, hesitation, and fear, the kind of resentments that linger in marital silences. He conjures this very pain in a poem where the couple cuts down the top of a tree for better TV reception because watching sports or an hour-long show is their escape from each other, their way of finding transcendence or the expected conclusion.
It is this struggle between inner and outer worlds, negotiating and navigating the dangers in each that defines the movements of the collection as a whole. It is the implied amor fati that supplies its dignity and power. As in all his work, these poems show Dunn's ability to simultaneously embrace and defy. Here as in his other collections he has the quality of a good Edward Hopper painting.