“Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn (repost)

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

“Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn from New and Selected Poems. © Norton, 1994.

*originally shared on December 4, 2015

“Before We Leave” by Stephen Dunn

Just so it’s clear—
no whining on the journey.
If you whine, you’ll get stuck
somewhere with people
like yourself. It’s an unwritten law.
Wear hiking boots. Pack food
and a change of clothes.
We go slowly. Endurance won’t
be enough, though without it
you can’t get to the place
where more of you is asked.
Expect there will be times
when you’ll be afraid.
Hold hands and tremble together
if you must but remember
each of you is alone.

Where are we going?
It’s not an issue of here or there.
And if you ever feel you can’t
take another step imagine
how you might feel to arrive,
if not wiser, a little more aware
how to inhabit the middle ground
between misery and joy.
Trudge on. In the higher regions,
where the footing is unsure,
to trudge is to survive.

Happiness is another journey,
almost over before it starts,
guaranteed to disappoint.
If you’ve come for it, say so,
you’ll get your money back.
I hope you all realize that anytime
is a fine time to laugh. Fake it,
however, and false laughter
will accompany you like a cowbell
for the rest of your days.
You’ll forever lack the seriousness
of a clown. At some point
the rocks will be jagged,
the precipice sheer. That won’t be
the abyss you’ll see looking down.
The abyss, you’ll discover
(if you’ve made it this far),
is usually nearer than that—
at the bottom of something
you’ve yet to resolve,
or posing as your confidante.
Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will
say such things, and mean both.

“Before We Leave” by Stephen Dunn from Lines of Defense: Poems (W. W. Norton & Company).

“Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn

Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet.

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

“Sweetness” by Stephen Dunn from New and Selected Poems. © Norton, 1994.

“The Reverse Side” by Stephen Dunn

The reverse side also has a reverse side – Japanese proverb

It’s why when we speak a truth
some of us instantly feel foolish
as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
and there it is – the opposite
of what we said.

And perhaps why as we fall in love
we’re already falling out of it.

It’s why the terrified and the simple
latch onto one story,
just one version of the great mystery.

Image & afterimage, oh even
the open-minded yearn for a fiction
to reign things in –
the snapshot, the lie of the frame.

How do we not go crazy,
we who have found ourselves compelled
to live with the circle, the ellipsis, the word
not yet written.

– Stephen Dunn
What Goes On: New & Selected Poems