The Not Yet Fallen World: New and Selected Poems
There’s something magical about the number 13: there are 13 stripes on the American flag, 13 is a prime and therefore indivisible number, in the Jewish calendar a leap year has 13 months and Steven Dunn’s new book, The Not Yet Fallen World, is presented in 13 parts. Dunn, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of 19 previous full-length poetry collections, was a master of conjuring language and this final collection of his, featuring selected works from all 19 of his previous volumes and including nine new poems, is a hefty tome that provides readers with a balanced look at just what a poet of Dunn’s skill and experience can bring to the world with concentrated and talented effort.
“Anyone who begins a sentence with, ‘In all honesty . . .’ / is about to tell a lie. Anyone who says, ‘This is how I feel’ / had better love form more than disclosure,” Dunn begins in his opening poem, “Propositions,” and with these brushstrokes, the masterful telling and the complexity, the simplicity and the sagacious wit begin. Even with these first lines of this collection’s first poem, the reader will see a flash of light, a puff of smoke and voila! Stephen Dunn appears like an image on a 19th century tintype: not pretentious or overstated but simply real. Any poet could learn from Dunn and countless poets have benefited from his deft pen in his 60-year career.
“If you say, ‘You’re ugly’ to an ugly person,” Dunn continues, “—no credit / for honesty, which must always be a discovery, an act / that qualifies as an achievement. If you persist / you’re just a cruel bastard, a pig without a mirror . . .” Without any other entrée, Dunn has, in the space of just two stanzas, done something akin to planting the flag on Iwo Jima in WWII. The poem showcases the mastery of the poet, and that, all well-contained within one page. There is a reason why Dunn has been published again and again and again. Future poets, take note: Stephen Dunn is the real deal.
Rita Dove, a former United States Poet Laureate, calls Dunn, “A poet who time and again achieves that most difficult magic of the ordinary,” and that mark falls fast and close to the centerline. Look at his poem, “The Sudden Light and the Trees”:
“My neighbor was a biker, a pusher, a dog
and wife beater.
In bad dreams I killed him
and once, in the consequential light of day,
I called the Humane Society
about Blue, his dog. They took her away
and I readied myself, a baseball bat
inside my door.
That night, I heard his wife scream
and I couldn’t help it, that pathetic
relief; her again, not me.
It would be years before I’d understand
why victims cling and forgive. I plugged in
the Sleep-Sound and it crashed
like the ocean all the way to sleep.
One afternoon I found him
on the stoop,
a pistol in his hand, waiting,
he said, for me. A sparrow had gotten in
to our common basement.
Could he have permission
to shoot it? The bullets, he explained,
might go through the floor.
I said I’d catch it, wait, give me
a few minutes and, clear-eyed, brilliantly
afraid, I trapped it
with a pillow. I remember how it felt
when I got it in my hand, and how it burst
that hand open
when I took it outside, a strength
that must have come out of hopelessness
and the sudden light
and the trees. And I remember
the way he slapped the gun against
his open palm,
kept slapping it, and wouldn’t speak.”
Dunn has mastered the use of space in the poem, teasing the effect of moments with his line breaks, punctuation and its absence, using the space between breaths to take his words to the heights one might peer over with reticence for fear of falling. It is uncanny that in his choice of subjects, Dunn manages to tease out every fiber that needs discovering. And the magic of that is the stories, though firmly established in their place and time, repeat—in every time. Look at “Five Roses in the Morning”:
March 16, 2003
“On TV the showbiz of war,
so I turn it off
wishing I could turn it off,
and glance at the five white roses
in front of the mirror on the mantel,
looking like ten.
That they were purchased out of love
and are not bloody red
won’t change a goddamned thing—
goddamned things, it seems, multiplying
every day. Last night
the roses numbered six, but she chose
to wear one in her hair,
and she was more beautiful
because she believed she was.
It changed the night a little.
For us, I mean.”
See how Dunn has packed the poet’s point of view: the rumors of war, the lead up to war and ultimate invasion of Iraq in 2003, presented from the TV lens of “the showbiz of war.” Once packaged, the poem rivets with its foresight into today: the press, audio and visuals of the Russian lead up to the invasion of Ukraine, their storyline to justify invasion and their attack on the humanity of Ukraine—all televised and available for everyday digestion in large or small doses, yet able to be turned off. And the world—at least the Western version, can still click away and focus on the roses on the mantle, their own effect magnified by a mirror, the view of which “changed the night a little. / For us, I mean.” If Dunn had a crystal ball, he couldn’t have hit the distant future any more accurately, and this is just a whiff of the “magic of the ordinary” that Rita Dove referenced.
It teeters on awe-inspiring, holding the substantive book that houses the collected poems of The Not Yet Fallen World. With its hard covers and 272 pages, it is a packed foray into Dunn’s
well-crafted work. If Dunn held an oracle in his writing, it would explain the uncanny applicability of past subjects to the present world, and would be a little worrying as to the outlook for this world’s trajectory. Some solace may erupt in that the title alludes to the fact that our world is “Not Yet Fallen,” and hope figures strong in that outlook. “It’s a problem / loving your protagonist too much” he says in his poem, “Story.” But what sets off this collection—and all of Stephen Dunn’s work—is just that overwhelming measure of love he has infused within his work.
Somehow, it is easy to visualize him toiling over each poem like a farmer carefully amending the soil to make each crop a success. We see the labor nestled behind: the spare language, the deliberate lines and relational effect. And this is the stuff. Stephen Dunn will forever be marked as a poet of worth. Reading this collection is like taking one more step to boost our world to a better stance, to love and a lack of war, to cultural fulfillment and raising of the torch of poetry so its light sheds our darkness.