Pure Poetry #34: Of All Poets, Stephen Dunn

Intern Emily:

I discovered Stephen Dunn, probably like everyone else, through Riese. Her consistent mention of him on her blog inspired me to buy his book New & Selected Poems (1974-1994). That was probably one of the better decisions of my life. At first I read him with Riese in mind, like maybe I could understand Riese better if I read Stephen Dunn. And if I understood Riese better, maybe I would understand myself. But that’s not how Stephen Dunn works, you see, because Stephen Dunn is really good at writing about you and nobody else. I mean Stephen Dunn writes words and the words look you in the eye and whisper “this is about you”. And then you have to pay attention.


A state you must dare not enter
with hopes of staying,
quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle
that doesn’t exist.
But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above
the crocodiles,
and its doors forever open.

Then there is a blank space for the rest of the page and it really does feel like forever. Like the poem itself is isolated on a page, like the castle of happiness, and you can stare at it and stare at it, but for what? It’s just there, staring back at you. I love that poem.

I no longer associate Stephen Dunn with Riese. He occupies this separate space in my mind now; a space which, daily, lines from his poems flutter through. I intentionally tried to avoid reading what Riese (and everyone else) wrote about Mr. Dunn because I feel like his work is very personal to me and I just want to talk about mememe and my feelings.

Can this still turn out to be a love poem?
Can I still pull you from the wreckage
and kiss your bruises, so black and gold?
Is it too late to introduce you
who were always here, the watermark,
the poem’s secret?
From the start all I wanted to explain
was how things go wrong,
how the heart’s an empty place
until it is filled,
and how the darkness is forever waiting
for its chance.
If I have failed, know that I was trying
to get to you in my own way,
know that my cat never swatted a butterfly,
it was I who invented and killed it,
something to talk about
instead of you.

From “Instead of You”

What do you do when you have a crush on your teacher and you want to tell her but you obviously can’t tell her? Well, you give her a Stephen Dunn poem of course. I feel like Stephen Dunn is gentle and kind, and he takes your feelings seriously, he knows that they are fragile. He knows what you need.

How to be Happy: Another Memo to Myself has served as some really good, cryptic advice, and also a good poem to give to someone because it fits perfectly on a sheet of loose leaf.

Beyond this, it’s advisable
to have a skill. Learn how to make something:
food, a shoebox, a good day.
Remember, finally, there are few pleasures
that aren’t as local as your fingertips.
Never go to Europe for a cathedral.
In large groups, create a corner
in the middle of a room.

When I feel unhappy I read this poem and remember that I don’t need much. It’s empowering because I remember that my happiness is internal, and I know how to make a good day, I just forget sometimes. So, here’s Stephen Dunn, pretending to write a memo to himself, but with a little wink at the end, because he knows you’re reading and you need it too.

The last poem I’m going to share with you is the nearest and dearest poem to my heart. It’s called The Vanishings. It’s long but I think you should read it. I mean, if you think you should read it, then you should read it.

One day it will vanish,
how you felt when you were overwhelmed
by her, soaping each other in the shower,
or when you heard the news
of his death, there in the T-Bone diner
on Queens Boulevard amid the shouts
of short-order cooks, Armenian, oblivious.
One day one thing and then a dear other
will blur and though they won’t be lost
they won’t mean as much,
that motorcycle ride on the dirt road
to the deserted beach near Cadiz,
the Guardia mistaking you for a drug-runner,
his machine gun in your belly—
already history now, merely your history,
which means everything to you.
You strain to bring back
your mother’s face and full body
before her illness, the arc and tenor
of family dinners, the mysteries
of radio, and Charlie Collins,
eight years old, inviting you
to his house to see the largest turd
that had ever come from him, unflushed.
One day there’ll be almost nothing
except what you’ve written down,
then only what you’ve written down well,
then little of that.
The march on Washington in ’68
where you hoped to change the world
and meet beautiful, sensitive women
is choreography now, cops on horses,
everyone backing off, stepping forward.
The exam you stole and put back unseen
has become one of your stories,
overtold, tainted with charm.
All of it, anyway, will go the way of icebergs
come summer, the small chunks floating
in the Adriatic until they’re only water,
pure, and someone taking sad pride
that he can swim in it, numbly.
For you, though, loss, almost painless,
that Senior Prom at the Latin Quarter—
Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, and you
just interested in your date’s cleavage
and staying out all night at Jones Beach,
the small dune fires fueled by driftwood.
You can’t remember a riff or a song,
and your date’s a woman now, married,
has had sex as you have
some few thousand times, good sex
and forgettable sex, even boring sex,
oh you never could have imagined
back then with the waves crashing
what the body could erase.
It’s vanishing as you speak, the soul-grit,
the story-fodder,
everything you retrieve is your past,
everything you let go
goes to memory’s out-box, open on all sides,
in cahoots with thin air.
The jobs you didn’t get vanish like scabs.
Her good-bye, causing the phone to slip
from your hand, doesn’t hurt anymore,
too much doesn’t hurt anymore,
not even that hint of your father, ghost-thumping
on your roof in Spain, hurts anymore.
You understand and therefore hate
because you hate the passivity of understanding
that your worst rage and finest
private gesture will flatten and collapse
into history, become invisible
like defeats inside houses. Then something happens
(it is happening) which won’t vanish fast enough,
your voice fails, chokes to silence;
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

This poem perfectly captures time. One day one thing and then a dear other will blur and though they won’t be lost they won’t mean as much. There are so many things I’ve forgotten. I had a mother once, but then she died, and I’m partially convinced that it happened another lifetime ago. Not in my life.

One day there’ll be almost nothing
except what you’ve written down,
then only what you’ve written down well,
then little of that.

As I’ve tried to write this for the past week and a half I’ve realized that I can’t. I want to highlight every line because it’s all the truth.

I want to tell you how my childhood has vanished, how the biggest hurts then are the smallest trifles now, how I’m not even sure if it’s real. Things happen, big and small, but it all fades into memory, and even that is a little fuzzy.

All of it, anyway, will go the way of icebergs
come summer.

Until it’s not fuzzy anymore. Until it’s sharp as a knife and it’s poking you in the heart. I see a woman with a baby and suddenly I remember that it was my life, it is my life. That’s all it takes, and everything just hurts. How could I have forgotten?

You understand and therefore hate
because you hate the passivity of understanding
that your worst rage and finest
private gesture will flatten and collapse
into history.

The truth is that I will forget, and forget again. It will hurt, and hurt again, and maybe one day it will vanish.

Stephen Dunn wrote a poem for people who are understandably too busy to read poetry, but he wrote The Vanishings for me.



Stephen Dunn is the first poet with whom I really fell in love. A deep, respectful love. Riese introduced me to him in 2002 – and, as a result, my experience with Mr. Dunn and my friendship with Marie are deeply intertwined.

I felt the same way when she introduced me to Lorrie Moore: grateful, relieved, amazed. Here’s a poet who’s able to capture EVERYTHING so beautifully, without reducing; he slowly, steadily depicts the nuances of life in a way that’s both so honest and matter-of-fact.

Like, “here we are.” Just like that. Conflicted, torn, in love, broken, pensive, struggling, liberating, pushing, agitating, to be out – his words speak to these all.

Like Ani Difranco and Lorrie Moore, Dunn has helped me feel not alone in that conflicted, lost, confused space we find. I always come back to him/to his words. They are underlined, highlighted, flagged with those stickie flags; i find that he always resonates – whatever is happening, wherever I am coming from.

So, two of my faves are in Loosestrife, published in 1996.

Ars Poetica
I’d come to understand restraint
is worthless unless
something’s about to spill or burst,

and that the Commandements
understand us perfectly, a large NO
for the desirability of everything

vengeful, delicious, out of reach.
I wanted to write ten things
that contained as much.

Maybe from the beginning
the issue was how to live
in a world so extravagant

it had a sky,
in bodies so breakable
we had to pray.

I welcomed, though,
our celestial freedom, our promiscuous flights
all returning to earth.

Yet what could awe us now?
The feeling dies
and then the word.

Restraint. Extravagance. I liked
how one could unshackle the other,
that they might become indivisible.

Astaire’s restraint was a kind of extravagance,
while Ginger Rogers danced backwards
in high heels and continued to smile!

She had such grace it was unfair
we couldn’t take our eyes off him,
but the beautiful is always unfair.

I found myself imagining him
gone wild, gyrating, leaping,
his life suddenly uncontainable.

Oh, even as he thrashed,
I could tell he was feeling
for limits, and what he could bear.

I loooove it. It speaks to one of life’s most basic struggles: wrestling with desire and restraint, with the contradictions – the wonderful/terrible/torturous/exhausting/crazy making contradictions…to the dialectic. At once, we struggle, thrash, push to find a way out – but then, also, needing some limits; safety, conformity is rewarded in our society. It’s rewarded handsomely. And Ars Poetica makes it feel like it’s okay to sit there, in that greyness.


How attractive trouble feels
in paradise. The place next door
where pain is an option
begins to whisper.
You want the leopard to replace
the swan, the great horned owl
to nudge a songbird out of a tree.
The case for suffering is always
overrated by those whose health
is good, whose houses are calm.
But today you understand
why some people pierce
more than their ears,
why the leisure class has a history
of eating itself from the inside.
And, now, a wish to stir
the stilled air with a serrated knife,
dip into the blackberry jam,
then lick that knife publicly clean,
hoping someone will notice and care.
From the beginning, hasn’t it
been the same: the need to woo
a stranger so you’ll not be mutinous
alone, to lie down knowingly
among the nettles and the thorns?

The simple reality that we want to feel, to feel excitement, to feel deeply, to feel something intensely. Anything. And when things are calm, we want to push, to destroy, to create – and then when things are messy, difficult, we just want calm, easy. Ahhh, the contradictions. Always the back and forth – but always trying to find the peace.


I am going to talk about “Loves.”

I haven’t talked about poetry yet this “week” because I found out I don’t know how to talk about poetry. I saw a play once about the myth of Philomel (I think it was The Love of the Nightingale) and one of the beginning lines said “If there was another way to tell it, we wouldn’t need the myth.”

I can’t say what it is that Stephen Dunn is saying to you or me or us because if I could, we wouldn’t need poetry. But I can tell you what it means to me.

Frustratingly, I can’t find the full text of this poem, because it turns out that I’ve given almost all my volumes of poetry to people that I’ve loved/slept with along with my Malcolm X autobiography, and now the only thing I have left is an Ellen Bass book which is a story for another time. (The irony of this situation is not lost on me.) But “Loves” is perfect and terrible because it is about the way love is at once the most beautiful and terrible thing about us; how it is the redeeming fact of an otherwise irredeemable species, but at the same time it is the worst thing we can ever do to each other.

The things that we do to the people we love are worse than anything we would ever imagine doing to the people we hate.

I give change to people on the street and I try to be kind to the person at the post office window when there’s a long line on a Saturday and they look harrowed, but I also forget my father’s birthday, I don’t return the handwritten letters sent by people who miss me. I go to bed early instead of picking up the phone. For a long time I thought I was the only one who did that, that there was something unique and awful about me. That is still not necessarily out of the question, I don’t think. But Stephen Dunn is my proof, at least, that all of us are guilty of some felony of love, that all of us have done unforgivable things, commit small crimes against humanity every day. All of us love each other so much it’s stupid and then break each other’s hearts anyway.

“Those who’ve gotten away from me:
read this, and call.
Those whom I’ve hurt:
I wanted everything, or not enough.
It was all my fault.”

It’s always all my fault. But at least now I know it’s all our faults. I remember the first time someone told me that all parents fail their children. And it felt heartbreaking but also like relief. This is what it feels like to know you’re not the only one; not good, but better, like relief.

“Listen, my truest love.
I’ve tried to clear a late century place for us
in among the shards.
Lie down, tell me what you need.
Here is where loneliness can live
with failure,
and nothing’s complete.
I love how we go on.”

Here is where loneliness can live with failure. Because all parents fail their children and all lovers fail the people they love, which is all of us, we all fail each other. But nothing’s complete, and here is where loneliness can live with failure, where failure can live with love. And we can go on. I love how we go on.


Next: “Loves” By Stephen Dunn, the complete text, because Rachel doesn’t have it, and maybe you don’t either.

Pages: 1 2 3See entire article on one page

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Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3153 articles for us.


  1. I haven’t finished reading this yet because I want to give it my full attention later.

    I get paid tomorrow, so New and Selected Poems’ll be purchased. Oh yes.

  2. I’m so glad “Loves” is online somewhere now. All my books are at home and sometimes I just want to read it.

  3. I’m really looking forward to reading this.
    (But could you possibly pull my last name from the illustration and maybe add my url? ooo0000ooo.tumblr)

  4. I am definitely craving more of Dunn’s work after this. I can’t even pick a favorite poem or set of lines from what was quoted here. Thank you all. I hadn’t had poetry in my life for too long, and the series – exemplified by this post – brought love for its honesty and beautifully-worked words crashing back in.

  5. Oh Gosh I meant to read the poetry but I got so distracted by the mentions of Interlochen that I just didn’t.

  6. “I was already gone. I just brought my body with me.”

    wow. that line just hit me like a ton of bricks. didn’t know much about Dunn before, but definitely going to be checking out his work now.

  7. Oh man – I love Stephen Dunn. All of you wrote really beautifully about him and basically captured any feelings I could write. This might be my favorite thing you have ever put on your website. I bought New and Selected Poems at a secondhand book store in D.C. (that may have the largest poetry section I’ve ever seen in a secondhand book store) and I always have it close by.


    If you believe nothing is always what’s left
    after a while, as I did,
    If you believe you have this collection
    of ungiven gifts, as I do (right here
    behind the silence and the averted eyes)
    If you believe an afternoon can collapse
    into strange privacies –
    how in your backyard, for example,
    the shyness of flowers can be suddenly
    overwhelming, and in the distance
    the clear goddamn of thunder
    personal, like a voice,
    If you believe there’s no correct response to grief
    (where I’ve sat making plans)
    there are small corners of joy
    If your body sometimes is a light switch
    in a house of insomniacs
    If you can feel yourself straining
    to be yourself every waking minute
    If, as I am, you are almost smiling…

  8. Donald Miller wrote, “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”

    This month of pure poetry has made me love poetry in a way I never could before. You all have helped to show me how. A few months ago, I bought “New and Selected Poems” when I found it at a used bookstore because you (Riese) are always talking about Stephen Dunn, and now I get it. I get it. I just wanted to say thank you.

    • That Miller quote perfectly expresses my feelings about Pure Poetry Month too! I’ve discovered so many new things and writers to love, I just don’t know where to start sometimes! But after reading this article, I think I’m starting with Stephen Dunn because DAMN. Just…wow.

      • yes exactly! whenever anyone says “I’m obsessed with _____”, that’s the best recommendation ever and guarantees i’ll at least check it out

  9. This post is everything I love about this website.

    I bought What Goes On two days ago. It will be my summer.

  10. So the thing is that sometimes I read AS and then I panic, because I’m like, ‘God, this is all so exactly relevant and great and I need to remember every single thing and click all the links and assimilate it all so that I can be the person I’m supposed to be and yes, yes, I agree with it all but WAIT panic PANIC this is only on a screen, I can’t touch it, and they update all the time, how can I ever hold enough of it in my head, am I going to die with the only poetry at my immediate recall being Alanis Morissette lyrics?’

    This started to happen to me just now, but then I had a moment of clarity, where I remembered that you guys are basically engraved on the internet and it’s fine, I can click back and remind myself of this whenever I want.

    I feel so calmed. Thank you. Thank you for this.

  11. “Those who’ve gotten away from me:
    read this, and call.
    Those whom I’ve hurt:
    I wanted everything,
    or not enough,
    it was all my fault.”

    nothing sums up my life better.

  12. Thankyou all for this. I don’t know Dunn at all, but I have a feeling that is about to change…

  13. I think how he ends poems, open as they are, gives you space to continue his words with your own, like he’s giving you the gift of his words to take what you want and add what you will.

    • that’s an interesting point — like he tells his story with plenty of room for you to be in it too, details and all

  14. So, I have been lurking on this site for several months now, possible already a year, and I have never commented on anything. (Also, I’m beginning to feel my comment phobia flare up again as I type [“Boo! Nothing substantial to contribute!”, “Boo! Grammar mistakes!”, “Boo! Excessive use of brackets!” etc.].) But now the default picture thingy is this adorable kitty (kitties <3) in this adorable hoodie (hoodies <3) which means that everything has changed!!! Oh, also, this is one of my most favourite articles I have ever read on here and it hasn't got enough comments! So…

    I love to read. I love words. But for some reason poetry has always been kind of inaccessible to me. I think one of the reasons is because, despite my love for words, I read too fast and don't let them sink in. Another reason may be because of this: "I thought I hated it because poetry is about feelings and I spent a lot of time not feeling up until then." and because I am not yet completely at the "up until then" part. I more or less skimmed over your other Pure Poetry posts, to be honest, but with this one: I read it start to finish. Including all of the poems, including that last one which seems never-ending and then ends too soon.

    I suppose this is just a reeeaaally long-winded way of saying that this post quite possibly changed my view of poetry permanently because the first thing I did after I was done reading was ordering Dunn's "New and Selected Poems", simply because I want more; I want more of his poetry in my life, of my life in his poetry (?). This is a first and for that I thank you.

  15. this just completely shut me down emotionally. But I liked it. I think.

    Excuse me while I go lie on the couch and try to get a grip on reality again.

  16. So, I am now a Stephen Dunn fan for two reasons- 1) all the lovely words and reasons laid out in this post & 2) look at that dude in that motherfucking vest. bamf.

  17. NEED. MORE. NOW.

    I love this line because it reminds me of my dog and I’ve been trying to find the words to describe this for years:
    “. . . I love his dignity
    when he seeks company, or turns away.”

  18. I keep coming back to this post and rereading everything and I want to cry, but not in the same way that I used to cry. I am sad, but not in the same way that I am usually sad, but also not in the happy sad way either.

  19. I have been waiting so patiently for Stephen Dunn to appear on Pure Poetry Week(s).

    Thank you.

  20. I can’t think of the right things to say so I’m just going to say thank you.

  21. I just bought Stephen Dunn’s book for my friend. I’m inscribing it, “For my beautiful friend on her birthday. Read Stephen Dunn with an open heart and he will change your life.”

  22. Also, you just changed my life with this article.
    My mind watches with amusement even as I rapture….

  23. Here I am over a year later, discovering more reasons to love Autostraddle. This is amazing! I hadn’t really payed enough attention to Stephen Dunn until this moment and now I guarantee that’s going to change. As for Pure Poetry, we REALLY ought to bring this back soon! I really hope we do…

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