Pure Poetry #34: Of All Poets, Stephen Dunn


—->I love the past, which doesn’t exist
until I summon it, or make it up,
and I love how you believe
and certify me by your belief,
whoever you are, a fiction too,
held together by what? Personality?
Voice? I love abstractions, I love
to give them a nouny place to live,
a firm seat in the balcony
of ideas, while music plays.
I love them more than hard evidence
and shapely stones, more than money,
which can buy time, but not enough.
I love love, for example,
its diminishments and renewals,
I love being the stupidest happy kid
on the block.

—->And what’s more interesting
than gossip about love? When I tell
a friend that my life is falling apart,
what a subject for him
to dine out on! What secrets for him
never to tell a soul, except those
souls to whom he tells everything.
I love how a good story insists
on being told.

—->When I betrayed, I loved chaos,
loved my crazed version of sane.
When I was betrayed, I loved fidelity,
home. I love more carefully now.
But never to have betrayed, admit it,
is a kind of lethargy or rectitude,
a failure, pure.

—->I love the way my cat Peaches
brought the live rat to the door
looking for praise. I love his dignity
when he seeks company, or turns away.
Of all fruits, plums.
Of vegetables, mushrooms satueed
in garlic and wine.
I love that a list like this
always must extend itself,
and must exclude, slash.
Loving: such a ruthless thing.

—->I love shifting from second
to third, that little smooth jerk
into speed, though it’s not exactly speed
I want, but being in the middle of speed
as in the somewhere of good sex,
those untimed next things
occurring on time. I love the moment
at the races when they’re all in the gate,
such power
not yet loose, and I love the race itself,
how the good jockey tempers and saves,
then dares. I love something to yell for,
something to bet my sweet life on
again and again.

—->I love the ocean in winter,
that desolation from which I can return,
solitude that’s sought and cradled,
the imaginings one leans towards
at a jetty’s end. Often, out there,
I’ve remembered what I love
about my marriage, turns and gatherings,
odd sacrifices, the sticking it out.
In retrospect, and only in retrospect,
I love a cataclysm that heals.
I love knowing that a marriage
must shed its first skin
in order to survive, must shed again.
Wreckage, thy name is progress.
It hurts just to think of you.

—->I love the power
not to use power, the weaker wolf
offering his jugular
and the stronger wolf refusing.
I love how breasts curve and reach
different crests, the long nipple, the
minor crown, the hard unbuttoned button,
each a gift. The faith we put
in a lover’s mouth! I love when
a distinction vanishes
between infantile and adult.

—->How alert I am to circumstance
when I’m leaving for a while,
or being left. I love the psychology
of kisses at such times, the guilt kiss
and the complaint kiss, the kiss
with a question in it.
And who doesn’t love to be the one
who returns, all puckered and alive?

—->I love the game-winning shot
that isn’t an accident, the shot prepared for
all one’s life, practice and talent
metamorphosed into a kind of ease.
I love the trouble
skill can get you out of, and the enlivening
pressures of boundaries and time.
No moment as lovely as the surpassing moment!
Oh poetry, oh the importance of ground
when leaving the ground.

—->I love the carpenter bees
in spring, mating in air, and I don’t mind
the holes they make in my house
or the innocent buzzing of my head.
Murderer, you’re just a sting away.
Murderer, it’s you who loves that weasel
in Nova Scotia, the graceful
treacherous one. Amazing
how he got through the chicken wire,
slinky as a mouse.

—->I love thinking of him returning
to the sanctuary of weasels, calm,
matter-of-fact. And something else in me
loved the blue jay
who all summer dive-bombed my cat,
the only justice it could deliver
for many blue deaths.

—->“I want to be consistent
with the truth as it reveals itself
to me,” Gandhi said, and I felt
the hard permission right words give us
to disobey, to become ourselves.
I loved thinking that integrity
might be fluid, and still do,
though the indulgent, rudderless
and without shame, love to think so too,
and the truth is
the indulgent are my careless brothers
half the time.

—-I love the way sorrow and lust
can be companions. I love the logic
of oxymorons, and how paradox helps us
not to feel insane. Aren’t facts
essentially loose, dull? I love
that an accident that doesn’t occur
is replaced by one that does.
It’s the personal that makes things count,
steadies a fact into importance. Otherwise,
there is is among the moon rising,
a piece of paper being torn, starfish
at the bottom of the sea.

—->Interesting how long it’s taken me
to discover fulfillment
can be more trouble than it’s wroth.
Interesting, that as desire recedes,
the world becomes pale yet clear.
I love knowing that even in rapture
part of the mind watches, amused.

—->I love that there’s a secret
behind every secret I’ve told.
I love twelve-year-old Scotch.
Before confessions of any sort,
a martini with a twist.
I love the wines
in my friend John’s cellar,
the act of going down
and bringing them up,
and his vocabulary of taste
and aftertase — tannin,
bouquet, tart —
I love how true experts speak
precisely, embody all the words.
And a beer for the big guy
at the end of the bar. He’s my friend
too, on my father’s side.
I love him for some old hurt
he’s here to relieve.

—->Who isn’t selfish enough
to love zoos? Flamingos, baboons,
iguanas, newts.
Surely evolution has a sense of humor.
Surely the world would be something to love
if it weren’t for us, insatiate,
our history of harm.
How hard even to love oneself,
all those things I’ve done
or dreamed of. Those vengeances.

—->I love Don who is poor,
but I don’t love the poor. I love Jules
and Jim
more than I love Casablanca,
but only when I’m asked.
Isn’t fairness for the timid?
I love the exacting prejudices
of the passionately thoughtful,
mercy earning its name,
transcending pity, which keeps
everyone small.

—->I love my daughters out of
habit and conviction, my wife
for the long, undulating wave
of our friendship,
a few other women, a few men.
I love the number of people you can love
at the same time, one deep erotic love
radiating even to strangers, crippling
cynics, making a temporary sense
of the senseless, choreful day.

—->When students fall in love with me
I want to tell them
I’m the dream that won’t last;
there are more pleasures in the text.
So much eros in a normal room!
I love to use it
to make complexity joyous,
to heighten simple points.

—->In spite of their lack of humor
I love Thoreau and Jesus, Marx,
Malcom X. I love their obstinate courage,
Hunger Artists all, going forward
because the food they ate
tasted wrong, and the world was sad.
But I love the other heroes more,
Shakespeare and Picasso, Dickinson,
Beckett, Frost, wise dark players
among entropy and the ruins.

—->I love the just-mowed grass
in spring, that good revision,
the clean odor of accomplishment.
I love the whale I saw
in the Caribbean, enormously itself.
And the fox who works the woods
behind my house, the envy of all of us:
deception without guilt.
I love the summer I decided to drive west
in a bad car.
I love the ferocity of certain dreams,
boulevards I’ve walked at midnight,
vulgarities made holy
in the mutual church of our bed.

—->Those who’ve gotten away from me:
read this, and call.
I wanted everything, or not enough;
it was all my fault.

—->I love how the fireweed
came up on Mount St. Helens
through the crust of ash—
I think of this when my knees hurt,
when I feel like making an excuse.
I love that tyrants give birth
to the knives that slit their throats.
And I love the vigilant
who try to keep the tyrants dead,
knowing they rise with different names.

—->(I’m saying all this to you,
my fiction, my one thing
that can be whole. I love what I might say,
the not yet felt or known.
In you there’s room
for spires and orange rinds,
the mumbled, the suppressed.
In you I could get lost.)

—->I love the manners of jazz musicians
the playing off and the taking turns,
and the formality of chamber players,
I love that too, the tuxes and deep bows,
and the little aristocracy of the first
violinist and the conductor, the audience
complicitous, desiring such a world.
I love how pop songs seem profound
when we’re in love,
though they wound us too sweetly,
never seriously enough.
I love the good home
clichès can find in an authentic voice.

—->I love the secret life
of hornets, famous for their sting,
all day at home making paper,
building a place they must leave.
I love the night-blooming cereus
for its name alone,
and the amaryllis
that must be kept in the dark,
and once a year
blooms brilliantly large.
Just be natural, the innocent say.
Such latitude!
Permission to be wild, bizarre.

—->I love intimacy, and accept
that concealment springs from it,
some portion of the heart
closing as it opens up.
After I asked my wife to marry me,
I hid behind a bush the next day
so she won’t see me,
and was thankful to Poe
and his Imp of the Perverse,
thankful, as it were, for a colleague.
Later, I loved telling her this,
laughter the sweetest agreement,
more conclusive than any yes.

—->To give succor to the dying
and to kiss the diseased. To put a coin
in a leper’s hand, and to hold that hand.
I love such love, and am its failure.
I love the selfless, but they’re no fun,
like faraway planets,
shining, always shining.
I prefer a vanity that can be appealed to.
I love room enough not to be good.

—->But what a pleasure it is
to feel righteous.
So rarely do I raise my voice,
what a pleasure to rant.
How seriously I’m taken then! Words
as bullets, emblems of the heart…
language every woman understands.

—->I love to replace God
with all things tactile, responsive,
and I love artifice,
which is a way of being godly
if the product is good.
And science, its curves and its bomb;
I love with a fearful love
how far the mind has gone.

—->Of all insects,
the thousand-legger.
Of flowers, the rose,
I cannot help it, the rose.
I love house more than country,
country more than space.
I love the thing chosen
and I love the illusion of choice.

—->After the eyes offer up
their shyness and deceits,
I look to mouths for the truth.
I love to see how temperament collects
in a smile, and often, before it happens,
it’s possible see cruelty,
a thin wire bent almost to a grin.
I love how lipstick can suggest
a grammar, and how, in sleep,
the mouth gives up its posture
like something defeated.
Isn’t a morning kiss, then,
a kind of restoration, a love test
for the one who wakes first?
I love what we must forgive.

—->So good to find them, the people
who’ve discovered fraudulence
in their lives, who’ve cast off, say,
a twenty-year lie.
I love how they listen to poems
as if words were necessary
daggers or balm, their faces proof
that the soul feeds on wild riffs,
every sort of truth-scrap, the blues.
I love that the normal condition
of the soul is to be starved.

—->Of all seasons,
early autumn, the trees holding on
to what’s theirs, and how nice
nobody’s flunked yet, the classroom alive
with the beautiful ignorance of beginnings.
I love that the shy ones
sometimes grow wings,
and that the peacocks disappoint
when they begin to speak.

—->I love to disappear on committees,
sneak out when the fastidious
begin to clean. I love to drift off
to where you are, love, when the solemn ones
need to make something clear.
Once in Chicago at the Hilton I slipped
an “I quit” note under my boss’ door,
took a night flight home.
Whatever I love about my life
started there.

—>When it comes to mixed feelings,
I love when the undertow begins,
as it must, to work against the flow.
Last week, accused of duplicity,
I knew I was guilty
of loving too few; there are truths
that can’t be said out loud.
It’s the singleminded who get
the most done, who rush right in.
I love a little hesitancy
before the plunge.
Liars, the whole lot of us.

—->I love looking
for that slow car around 10 A.M.,
the mail-woman, Dorothy, who knows
I live for acceptances
and declarations of love.
Sometimes I’m out there waiting—
Thursday— the best day,
as any connoisseur knows.
I love how she leans out of her Nova
with the steering wheel on the right.
I love that she apologizes for junk,
that she knows the feel and look
of the personal, and how mock-sad she gets
when she has little to give.
Sundays I thnk of envelopes
being licked and stamped, mail in
transit, dream-mail,
change-one’s-life mail. Sunday,
worst day of the week. And those
church bells ringing stasis, stasis.

—->In the spacey boredom
of late afternoon, I love
that the casinos are open and near,
and sometimes after midnight, too,
for indulgence or danger’s sake,
I love to walk through those electric doors
into the quick comfort
of slot sounds and sleaze.
I love to take my place among the prodigal
escapees screaming for sevens
and one big time when everything went
my way, I loved placing all that cash
on my wife’s sleeping body,
loved, come morning, to see her waken
like that, covered with luck.

—->I love the hour
before dinner, cheese on the cutting board,
white wine for her, something hard
for me. I love the rituals that bring us
together when sullenness persists,
how the dishes must be done,
the children helped toward bed.
I love how familiar bodies
drift back to each other
wordlessly, when the lights go out.
Oh we will die soon enough.
Not enough can be said
for a redemptive caress.

—->How good it’s been to slide back
the heart’s hood awhile, how fortunate
there’s a heart and a covering for it,
and that whatever is still warm
has a chance.
I’m withholding things of course,
secrets I’ll replay, alone,
when my bones go soft.
Even you have no place for them,
my spacious one, you who have existed
to resist me as I’ve made you up.
Do I sense you getting tired now?
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 loveliness can live
with failure, and nothing’s complete.
I love how we go on.

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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 3211 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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