Everything Else in the World

Prior to reading Everything Else in the World, I had only come across Stephen Dunn poems by chance. An anthology here, a poets.org search there. Finally, after discovering the poem "The Kiss," I knew it was time to take a deeper look at this particular poet and so I bought Dunn's fourteenth collection of poems, which happens to contain the one that pushed me over the edge.

With only a few poems to form an opinion, I was not quite expecting what I found here in this collection. It all feels distinctly similar to Billy Collins, though Dunn seems to make more of what it means to be an adult in today's world. Playful at times, but always incredibly attentive to subtle shifts of thought and understanding. There's honesty and precision, coupled with a deep emotion and need to communicate more than just a field of vision. Dunn seems more interested in the people that inhabit the world and how they shape it as opposed to the world as it exists apart from them (perhaps noting that there really is no such world any longer). Indeed, more time seems spent in a mental world than a physical one, though one is overlaid on the other.

Having now spent more time with Dunn's poetry, I can say with absolute certainty that I'll be seeking out even more of it. To give you a taste, here are some of my favorites, including the poem that brought me here and the one that lends its name to the collection:

"Everything Else in the World"

Too young to take pleasure
from those privileged glimpses
we're sometimes given after failure,
or to see the hidden opportunity
in now getting what we want,
each day I subwayed into Manhattan

in my new, blue serge suit,
looking for work. College, I thought,
had whitened my collar, set me up,
but I'd majored in history.
What did I know about the world?

At interviews, if asked about the world,
I might have responded--citing Carlyle--
Great men make it go, I want to be one of those.
But they wanted someone entry-level,
pleased for a while to be small.

Others got the jobs;
no doubt, later in the day, the girls.
At Horn & Hardarts, for solace
at lunchtime, I'd make a sandwich emerge
from its cell of pristine glass.
It took just a nickel and a dime.

Nickels and dimes could make
a middleman disappear, easy as that,
no big deal, a life or two
destroyed, others improved.
But I wasn't afraid of capitalism.
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.

"You'd Be Right"

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 it 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, 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?

"Cut and Break"

Each morning the sullen but excellent masons
arrived at six to cut and lay stone
for the riding walls of our walkway.
Hung over, they worked deliberately, didn't care
that anyone might be sleeping or disturbed.
We learned not to speak to them before noon.

It was western Maryland; for me a new home,
new love, at once connected and removed.
Guns and Jesus rhymed on many a pickup.
The local newspaper ransacked
the Bible to edify and guide. Democracy:
how hard to like it every hour of the day.

Meanwhile, when the stonemasons spoke
they cursed. When they were silent
they were making noise. At 6 a.m. I could think
of a few freedoms I wished to curtail.
But of course they worked with what wouldn't
easily yield. They had to cut and break

before they could make anything whole.
I should have been all sympathy,
I who'd recently torn apart a marriage,
discovered what was and wasn't there.
In a few weeks the walkway was finished.
They were out of my life, gone.

Sometime solid remained, and the mountains
seemed to collect around us,
seemed even to redefine the sky,
but not for long. In this foreignness
I recognized an elsewhere
I carried with me, no one's fault.

Yet my love had a way of finding me
wherever I was. And soon I'd meet a man
whose decline in tennis matched mine,
and another I knew would be a friend
after I saw the stunning useless art he made
out of metal, discarded things.

"The Kiss"

She pressed her lips to mind.
--a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone's lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she's missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear,
speaking sense. It's the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.

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