This morning’s New York Times includes the obituary for the poet Stephen Dunn. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/25/books/stephen-dunn-poet-dead.html Even though I’m not reading much poetry lately, Dunn has always been one of my favorites. Seven years ago, I wrote a post about Dunn’s poem about listening to Tosca and about a story of what happened when a bag full of his books was stolen from me in Penn Station, New York. Here’s that post in memory of Stephen Dunn.
In a previous post I said that both religion and art involve imagining order. In religion the order is a given, whereas in art the order is created in the act of imagining.
One of the poems in Stephen Dunn’s Pulitzer prize-winning collection Different Hours is called “Art.” He opens this poem with Maria Callas singing Tosca’s famous aria, “Vissi d’arte,” I lived for art, on his “boombox” as he drifts through the house. Unlike Puccini or Callas, Dunn can “be distracted by weather,/lured by box scores and décolletage.” As he is applauding their dedication to art with “a small tear formed in the corner/of my left eye,” “the mood-insensitive clock” tells him that his “wife’s plane would soon touch down.”
I didn’t want to move. Was Puccini
ever taken from such a fine moment?
Was Callas? They must have been, of course.
And couldn’t bear it. Or ranted anyway
because they were brilliantly selfish,
or what involved them just then
was magical, in a sense their lives,
a virtuosity that shouldn’t be disturbed.
But Dunn must rush to the airport as the wind whips up for “a promised storm.” On his drive he tries to “time amber, beat red,” thinking about the bed he hasn’t made while his wife’s been gone and about the “inside cat” he left outside. He runs from the short-term parking lot.
Man of urgency. Man of what later,
with feeling, might be sung.
Ironically, then, Dunn uses life’s distractions from art to create art, to sing about these distractions “with feeling.”
I have a story about Stephen Dunn and art that dates about 10 years before this poem was published. For most of his career Dunn has taught at Stockton State College in New Jersey. When I was working for the State Department of Higher Education in the early 1990s, and aspiring to write poetry, I asked the department librarian to get Dunn’s books for me through interlibrary loan. Even by then he had at least eight books published. I had them all in a small gym bag, which I brought with me on a weekend trip to New York City with my first wife. (I told you I am a compulsive reader.)
We took the train from Philadelphia to New York. When we got off at Penn Station on a Friday evening in November, there was more than the usual hubbub at the taxi stand on 8th Avenue. Some men we thought worked for the MTA directed us around to 7th Avenue, where they helped load our luggage into the trunk of the cab. My first indication that they were not what they pretended to be was that the taxi driver started shaking his head disapprovingly as he drove away. By then, what had been done had been done.
When we got to the hotel and up to our room, I found that the bag with all of Dunn’s books was missing. I could only think of all the bureaucratic hassle I was going to get from the multiple college libraries from which these books had been borrowed.
We went back to Penn Station in another cab. I don’t know what I expected to find. The men who lifted this bag as they closed the trunk of the taxi? Or what? I didn’t expect to find the bag neatly placed next to the 8W stairs in the main waiting area of Penn Station. But that’s where it was. I wished I could have seen the looks on their faces when they opened the bag and found it full of books of poetry. Why didn’t they just throw the bag away? I don’t know. Nor am I sure why the bag was carefully placed out of the way of foot traffic, but in plain sight. I can imagine.