I read Stephen Dunn’s poem “Introduction to the Twentieth Century” again today. It opens like this:
“The conveyor belts bearing hubcaps and loneliness
Were everywhere, and the invisible ruts in the air
Could transport you for a lifetime
If you weren’t careful.”
Nothing particularly surprising there, right? And, actually, on this reading, it struck me as rather pedestrian. Almost predictable. Almost, “Yes, right, here’s a poem about the twentieth century and blah blah blah and we were lonely and we lived monotonous lives and we were sedated by luxuries and we bought and we bought and etc.” The whole first stanza is like that for me: “There was no way / to escape the Day-Glo and boldface” and so forth, the only exception being the line, “Monotony had a hair trigger,” which I love.
But the second stanza: that’s where the poem takes off. That’s where we find this:
“Yet some of us were happy for hours, days, weeks.
Even in the subways there were people to love,
There were children who ripped apart their mothers
To get into the world, and them others called them
Daughter or Son, and the fathers got drunk
And felt they had a say in the universe.
This would happen every day!”
Right. So much there. So much that could be, in the hands of a smaller poet, shrugged off as too easy, as almost contrived (in concept), as the same old ground that’s been worked over countless times by others, whether put down in poems or not. It could go the way of the first stanza. But it doesn’t. Here, it lives. It matters. Notice how perfectly the sentiment at the start of the stanza meshes with the exclamatory statement that follows, reminding us, through the speaker, that, yep, given all we’ve seen in the first stanza, all we’ve seen in our own lives, all the time that we’ve spent railing at imperfection, at inadequacy, at the loss of beauty, at the transformation of our lives into routine and advertisements and slow death by acquisition, we still, occasionally, even every day, sit up with sudden joy, sudden wonder, sudden happiness, sudden laughter.
And I love how Dunn allows the fathers to feel they have a say in the universe only when they’re drunk. As if they can dare hope that they matter, that they are not powerless, only when intoxicated, only when they, paradoxically, can claim less responsibility for their thoughts and actions. As if facing that hope, that belief, that bit of fundamental trust that an individual has a say in his own life, damnit, might be too frightening, particularly if facing it might mean acknowledging it, and as if acknowledging it might mean acting on it. And, I guess if you’re drunk, you get to duck the responsibility that such a hope, such a feeling, might entail.
The poem continues:
“This would happen every day! And for every death
There was a building or a poem. For every
Lame god a rhythm and a hunch, something local
We could possibly trust.”
It celebrates, like so much of Wallace Stevens’ work, our ability to find mystery and goodness in the concrete, in our own lives, in “something local.”
Even in the subways, no less.
There are more lines, six or seven of them, but they’re blah blah Hitler and blah blah Stalin until the very end, when Dunn kills me with this:
“In difficult times, we came to understand,
It’s the personal and only the personal that matters.”