By Alicia Cuomo
In an interview with Richard Edwards, poet Stephen Dunn responded to a question concerning the realness of his pieces, saying, “My poems are real, and now and then speak with some persuasion to strangers, or at least some of my mail tells me so … I’d like my imagination, for a little while, to become theirs.”
Dunn’s most recent publication, “Here and Now,” certainly shares shamelessly with the reader. “Here and Now” is surprisingly self-conscious — a beautiful gathering of the complex psyche behind privilege, marriage and a girl in a brazen neon tank top.
This is the Pulitzer Prize winner’s sixteenth collection of poems, and his ability to play with the fine lines between intimacy and façade, romance and the habitual is masterful.
In “The Imagined,” Dunn questions, “and if you come to realize the imagined woman/ can only satisfy your imagination, whereas/ the real woman with all her limitations/ can often make you feel good, how, in spite/ of knowing this, does the imagined woman/ keep getting into your bedroom, and joining you/ at dinner, why is it that you always bring her along/ on vacations when the real woman is shopping/ or figuring the best way to the museum?”
Here, and at the heart of “Here and Now,” is the dichotomy of the public and private self. We dress up to please and say all the right things to woo, marry and perpetuate the cycle of life, but this skin is always separate from our thoughts, expectations and, for lack of a better word, soul.
Again and again, Dunn writes about the blemishes of sexuality and daily living.
In “Lessons,” he speaks of walking on eggshells while chasing tail during the bra-burning sexual revolution in “Promiscuity,” a man spies on his neighbors with binoculars, and in “Don’t Do That,” the narrator hugs a glass of Johnnie Walker Red and undresses women with his eyes.
The aforementioned piece, “Promiscuity,” begins “When the neighbor’s drapes are open/I’m not like the kind of man/ who refuses to put down his binoculars/so that their steamy, good time/can remain his as well. No/I’m exactly that kind of man/ wary of anyone who’d turn away.”
The honesty Dunn constructs is a universe of flirtation, wine and entertainment with a delicate core. We do not always love our lovers, and we are not always sober. Sometimes we are even fools.
Ultimately, he says, all we can ask is, “Be sweet to me, world.”