Pure Poetry #34: Of All Poets, Stephen Dunn

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – *Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – *Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – *Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – *Adrienne Rich, by Taylor
#18 – 3/8/2011 – Raymond Carver, by Riese
#19 – 3/9/2011 – Rock WILK, by Gabrielle
#20 – 3/9/2011 – Veronica Franco, by Queerie Bradshaw
#22 – 3/12/2011 – William Carlos Williams & Robert Creeley, by Becky
#23 – 3/13/2011 – NSFW Sunday is Pure Poetry Edition, by Riese
#24 – 3/14/2011 – Charles Bukowski, by Intern Emily
#25 – 3/16/2011 – Rainer Maria Rilke, by Riese
#26 – 3/17/2011 – Lee Harwood by Mari
#27 – 3/18/2011 – Jeffrey McDaniel by Julieanne
#28 – 3/20/2011 – *Dorothy Porter by Julia
#29 – 3/21/2011 – Sylvia Plath, by Riese
#30 – 3/24/2011 – *Poems About Being a Homogay, by Riese
#31 – 3/28/2011 –
 Mary Oliver by Morgan
#32 – 3/29/2011 – *Gertrude Stein + Mina Loy by Intern Emily
#33 – 3/29/2011 – Sappho by Marisa Meltzer
#34 – 3/30/2011 – Stephen Dunn by Riese, Rachel, Intern Laura & Intern Emily

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“I admire a great gaggle of contemporary poets whom I regard as a veritable pantheon of secular gods, but Stephen Dunn is my favorite living poet, my high priest of vertically rendered experience. I love his work so much that it seems that he should be dead. You understand.”

– Erik Campbell, The Accidental Plagiarist

Original Illustration for Autostraddle by Maja

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We’ve decided to end Pure Poetry Month with a megapost about our favorite poet of all time. He’s not a lesbian, unfortunately, but he changed our lives just the same and could change yours and has changed, we assume, many lives along the way.

Stephen Dunn was born in 1939 in New York City. Once upon a time he was a basketball player, another time he went to school for writing at Hofstra and then at Syracuse. Stephen Dunn won the Academy Award for Literature, the James Wright Prize, the National Poetry Series Award and a ton of National Endowment For the Arts situations. He has taught poetry and writing at Columbia, Syracuse, the University of Washington, Princeton, the University of Michigan, Wichita State University and others.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Different Hours, published in 2000. He lives in New Jersey sometimes and Maryland sometimes.

We love him.

Let’s go.

Riese:

I don’t know how to talk about Stephen Dunn, because Stephen Dunn has already dedicated his life to talking about me so talking about him seems redundant.

Those of us who think we know
the same secrets
are silent together most of the time

– from ‘those of us who think we know’

He doesn’t know that he’s talking about me. I mean he’s a middle-aged — well, he must be past 60 by now — white guy who lives, I think, in New Jersey.

I met Stephen Dunn before I knew Stephen Dunn because he was the first poet to visit my first writing class during my first year at Interlochen Arts Academy.

At the time I was still anti-poetry. I didn’t know he was such a big deal. I remember writing notes to my roommate about Ovaltine vs. Swiss Miss while he read.

I wish I’d known then what I know now about how much he knows me, I have so many questions for him. No I don’t. I wouldn’t say a word.

In large groups, create a corner
in the middle of a room.

I remember one line that he read though, from “The Routine Things Around the House.” I realized this line was the truest thing I’d ever read, it described the only solace I knew for “what to do with pain,” and it reminded me of me feeling how I felt when terrible things happened. I used that line to explain myself so many times I don’t even need the book to write it down:

When Mother died I thought:
now I’ll have a death poem.

That was unforgivable

A year later in a poetry workshop, a classmate mentioned her obsession with Stephen Dunn, and how she read New & Collected Poems every night all over again. I didn’t even like that girl. She was a bad poet.

But I’m obsessed with what people become obsessed with. Then I noticed everyone else had remained obsessed since he’d first arrived on campus — all my best friends were into him like teenagers are into Liz Phair or something. Some of my friends were into Liz Phair AND Stephen Dunn.

Why didn’t I notice the first time? He’s not inaccessible or esoteric. He’s one of the most accessible poets I’ve ever read.

It was me, not him.

I remember Stephen Dunn’s reading like you remember the first, incidental time you met your future girlfriend but had no idea at the time, how maybe you smiled at each other across the table and texted kindly the next day in a friendly manner and then boom five months later you’re re-hashing that first glance, turning it into legend, turning memory into forecasts.

Stephen Dunn is a language now. It’s a part of how I talk, and his words are equals to our own in relationships with my Interlochen friends Krista and Ingrid.

“Remember Each From Different Heights, Ris,” Krista wrote me when a boy had just broken my heart. “Remember the bruise turning perfectly white.” And Ingrid, who’d made me a card with Each From Different Heights on it the year prior, so it was right there when Krista brought it up. Right there for me to reference it.+

Each From Different Heights

That time I thought I was in love
and calmly said so
was not much different from the time
I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud
to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius
of my hands

And the times I felt less in love,
less than someone
were, to be honest, not so different
either.

Each was ridiculous in its own way
and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.

I am astounded
by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights
diminished, which is simply the law.

And the big bruise
from the longer fall looked perfectly white
in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.

I was 19 when he did a reading at The University of Michigan and I wrote it up for The Michigan Daily. I wondered if Stephen would see it. He was teaching MFA students that year.

…and the class proceeded to debate
what’s fucking, what’s making love,
and the importance of context, tact
the
bon mot. I leaned towards those

who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject.

from decorum

Once we were in the same elevator, I think it was in Angell Hall. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to change our relationship — the one where I read everything he said and he didn’t know who I was.

It was weird to breathe air with him, just riding the elevator like two normal anonymous people. Afterwards I wrote him a letter and never sent it. I’m glad I never sent it.

I brought my best friend Becky to that reading he did at U of M, a Westchester-bred sorority girl who liked Between Angels so much that she’d built an entire photography project around it. I got her that book for her birthday. When I took Advanced Photo that year I took pictures of Becky and this boy Adam for a visual presentation of After Making Love (which Laura discusses, below), but then someone stole it from the Photography classroom. I wonder why.

stephen dunn on the shelf in my old apartment

Most of my best friends know Stephen Dunn because Stephen Dunn is the very first thing I give them for the very first holiday we ever share, but only if I can hand it to them, it’s not the kind of thing you can mail.

I was 20 when I met another best friend, Natalie, and now we speak in a language that consists of our actual personalities augmented by Ani DiFranco lyrics, Lorrie Moore quotes and Stephen Dunn poems.

Here, let me help you, then you me,

——>otherwise we’ll die.

from kindness

In Wisconsin for a weekend in October of my fourth year of college : Krista and Ingrid and I got cheese curds in a bag and raspberries from the Farmers Market and were eating at their house and taking turns reading Stephen Dunn poems to each other.

Ingrid read “Beautiful Women” and said “I dedicate this to you two because you are the most beautiful women I know,” which we thought was funny because everyone knew Ingrid was the most beautiful woman in the world. We’d gone to high school together. We knew these things.

More things come to them,
and they have more to hide.
All around them: mirrors, eyes
—–>In any case
they are different from other women
and like great athletes have trouble
making friends, and trusting a world
quick to praise.

But she was right. It wasn’t about high school or cheekbones, it was about being exactly who we were/are which is beautiful, all of us.

I wanted to stay in Madison forever with them on that floor, on that mattress, with those words. But I couldn’t — I had to go back to Michigan, to my condo and my boyfriend and the life I’d chosen but didn’t want anymore.

It was like this with him, eventually:

The Answers

Why did you leave me?

We had grown tired together. Don’t you remember?
We’d grown tired together, were going through the motions.

Why did you leave me?

I don’t know, really. There was comfort in that tiredness.
There was love.

Why did you leave me?

You began to correct my embellishments in public.
You wouldn’t let me tell my stories.

Why did you leave me?

She is… I don’t wish to be
any more cruel than I’ve been

You son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I was already gone.
I just brought my body with me.

Why did you leave me?

You found out and I found I couldn’t give her up.
I was as shocked as you were.

Why didn’t you lie to me?

I was already lying to you. It was hard work.
All of it suddenly felt like hard work.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted to try monogamy again.
I wanted the freedom to be monogamous.

You fucker. You fucking son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted you both. I thought I could be faithful
to each of you. You shouldn’t have made me choose.

Don’t you know what betrayal is?

I never thought of it as betrayal. More like one pleasure
of mine you should never have known.

You really are quite an awful man.

Why did you leave me?

It was time to leave.
The hour of leaving had come.

Why did you leave me?

It would take too long to explain. Please
don’t ask me to explain.

Will you not explain it to me?

No, I will not explain it to you. I’ll say anything
rather than explain it to you. Even things that sound true.

These two lines are perfect. I’ve repeated an infinite number of times:

I was already gone.
I just brought my body with me.

So, then Krista was driving me to the bus station. She asked me if my boyfriend loved words. I said he did not. I knew, she knew, we all knew it. I’d already left, but my body lingered on. I came home wanting to touch no-one.

I’ve come home wanting to touch
everyone, everything; usually I turn
the key and they’re all lost
in food or homework, even the dogs
are preoccupied with themselves,
I desire only to ease
back in, the mail, a drink,
but tonight the body-hungers have set out
their long-range signals
or love itself has risen
from its squalor of neglect.

from i come home wanting to touch everything

Krista spent an entire day hunting down The Insistence of Beauty — where “The Answers” is from — when it first came out. By this point we were living together in Manhattan. When I got home from work she handed me my copy:  Ris, I think Stephen Dunn is getting divorced and I think he cheated on his wife or something.

But it wasn’t just the divorce making sneaky appearances in The Insistence of Beauty — though it was that. But it was also losing trust in love, or in the world, or in anything you once deemed reliable or eternal.

It was how people felt right after 9/11 which was right before our early 20s and so by this point in time — the point of when we read this book –we’d already stopped trusting things. It set the tone. That things could be one way, and then another. I trusted no one because that’s what happens after two or three people break your trust, you call the whole thing off. Then the world just reinforces that belief. I didn’t think anyone could write about it without sounding tacky, unless they’d been there, or knew somebody.

It was a relief, then, to learn that Stephen Dunn knew it too.

Grudges

Easy for almost anything to occur.
Even if we’ve scraped the sky, we can be rubble.
For years those men felt one way, acted another.

Ground zero, is it possible to get lower?
Now we had a new definition of the personal,
knew almost anything could occur.

It just takes a little training to blur
a motive, lie low while planning the terrible,
get good at acting one way, feeling another.

Yet who among us doesn’t harbor
a grudge or secret? So much isn’t erasable;
it follows that almost anything can occur,

like men ascending into the democracy of air
without intending to land, the useful veil
of having said one thing, meaning another.

Before you know it something’s over.
Suddenly someone’s missing at the table.
It’s easy (I know it) for anything to occur
when men feel one way, act another.

That last part reminded me of Joan Didion, from The Year of Magical Thinking:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

And I wrote those things down in my diary over and over again: Before you know it something’s over, life changes in the instant, in the ordinary instant, it’s easy, you sit down to dinner and suddenly someone’s missing at the table. Over and over. It felt true.

Here are just a few of the other things he said that now I think about constantly, and maybe accidentally write myself sometimes, thinking it’s my own idea:

I do not mind living
like this. I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything’s true
at different times
in the capacious day.

(from Between Angels)

There are always the simple events
of your life
that you might try to convert into legend.
(from Some Things I Wanted to Say to You)

I’ve known an edginess, come evening,
when I haven’t chosen to be alone, but am…
(from Night Truths)

Tell your lovers the world
robs us in so many ways
that a caress is your way
of taking something back.
Tell the dogs and the horses
you love them more than cars.
Speak to everything
would be my advice.

(from Some Things I Wanted to Say to You)

Intelligence warmed by generosity
is inner beauty, and what’s worse
some physically beautiful women have it,
and we have to be strapped and handcuffed
to the mast, or be ruined.

(from “Beautiful Women“)

When you get together
you must feel everyone has brought
his fierce privacy with him
and is ready to share it. Prepare
yourself though to keep something back;
there’s a center in you
you are simply a comedian without…
(from How to Be Happy: Another Memo to Myself)

If you want to love Stephen Dunn then a good/ideal place to start is New & Selected Poems (1974-1994). It has so many of my favorites in it. He wrote a non-fiction book too, called Waking Light, with this essay in it about Truth that I based my whole life on. Here’s the books you should read, in order:

1. New & Selected Poems (1974-1994)
2. Between Angels
3. The Insistence of Beauty
4. Loosestrife
5. Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs
6. Different Hours
7. Walking Light
8. Landscape at the End of the Century
9. Everything Else in the World
10. Local Visitations

I said in the beginning that I always buy Stephen Dunn for a new friend when they’re still new, and that I try to make everyone I love, love him too. But I’ve never bought Stephen Dunn for a girlfriend or boyfriend. I’m afraid. What if I see the book, untouched, on the counter? What if they read one thing and ignore the rest? I couldn’t handle it. I have come prepared to hold something back.

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Stephen Dunn plays ping-pong at Rollins College

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Intern Laura:

I don’t know how to talk about things I like so I’m going to talk about me. I liked Stephen Dunn because I learned about him during the year that I learned that I didn’t actually hate poetry. I thought I hated it because poetry is about feelings and I spent a lot of time not feeling up until then. Not because something was wrong or I was damaged or anything, just because I was afraid I would do it wrong. Feelings are messy and poetry is hard if you like everything to have a place. I’m kind of a perfectionist.

This is what brought me to AP English, since I didn’t actually have any specific love for literature. I used to devour books, but I’d slowly forgotten about what books can do as I isolated myself in ambition. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is what made a little crack in my shell during the first week of class because I felt like there wasn’t time. And then “To His Coy Mistress” because it made me laugh and it was written 400 years ago and that’s crazy.

Then my teacher told me I had to write more to practice and so I started by copying things down that I liked so that I wouldn’t mess up. I wrote down those two and then some more. I realized other people’s words weren’t enough and so slowly I started reporting my days to my journal. Every night I wrote how things looked that day and who I saw and where I went.

One day I read “Essay on the Personal” on Riese’s blog and I thought that some of the things he said were about me. I was practicing for all the things I hadn’t felt yet and realizing that now I had more than just things to report because life was feeling like more than just that.

I forgot about him until, having felt a lot of things, I took my lonely-again heart to books for comfort.

After Making Love

No one should ask the other,
“What were you thinking?”

No one, that is,
who doesn’t want to hear about the past

and its inhabitants,
or the strange loneliness of the present

filled, even as it may be, with pleasure
or those snapshots

of the future, different heads,
on different bodies.

Some people actually desire honesty.
They must never have broken

ino their own solitary houses
after having misplaced the key,

never seen with an intruder’s eyes
what is theirs.

I missed my family and I missed the friends I’d made and wished highs didn’t have to come with such low lows. Unlike me, Stephen Dunn’s poems recognized the grey. They weren’t too obvious in their sadness but they spoke about it perfectly. I bought “New and Collected Poems” and read through it in my room because the park next to the bookstore seemed too public and too expected and his poems were neither of those things.

I got through my heartache by listening to it during the day and listening to Ira Glass at night. I worked on my balancing act and moved my headquarters to a tiny room that gets enough sun.

The Room and the World

The room was room enough for one
or maybe two if the two had just
discovered each other and were one.
Outside of the room was the world
which had a key to the room, and knowing
a little about the world he knew
how pointless it was to change the lock.
He knew the world could enter the room
anytime it wanted, but for the present
the world was content to do its damage
elsewhere, which the television recorded.
Always, he kept in his mind the story of a man
hanging from a cliff, how the wildflowers
growing there looked lovelier than ever.
That was how he felt about his one chair
and the geometry of the hangers in his closet
and the bed that fit him like a body shirt.
Sometimes the world would breathe heavily
outside the door because it was obscene
and could not help itself. It was this
that led him eventually to love the world
for its pressure and essential sadness.
One day he just found himself opening
the door, allowing the inevitable.
The world came in and filled the room.
It seemed so familiar with everything.

But one day soon when I’ve learned enough, I’ll move to a room that has space for more than just me. I think what Stephen Dunn does so well is love other people. It’s too easy to be a complete shit and think that you’re the only person in the world who feels like you and not be brave enough to go out and discover that you’re not.

I was watching an interview with Sam Beam (my other favorite poet) and he was talking about how you can’t say “Do you remember when we had french fries?” because that only means something to one or two people, you have to look bigger.

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Next: Intern Emily, Natalie and Rachel talk about how precisely they also love 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.

Happiness

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.

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Natalie:

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.

Paradise

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.

Rachel:

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.

dotted-divider2

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

Loves

—->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.

Pages: 1 2 3See entire article on one page

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Riese is the 39-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," 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. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2879 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. “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.

  3. 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.

    Welcome

    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…

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. “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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.”

  9. 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.

  10. 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.”

  11. 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…

  12. Pingback: Cutting Cords | one check or two?

  13. Pingback: Note to self – thoughts of intersection

  14. Pingback: Rhythm, writing, and The List Poem – trancepoetics

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