Book Review

In a dozen wry, candid, personal poems, Stephen Dobyns laments the “sophistry of self-deceit” that allows us to live as if the wretchedness around us does not exist.

Winter’s Journey is the 14th book of poetry from Dobyns, who is this year’s Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford University. A reader gets the picture in the first 100 words that the human addiction to war and maddening loudmouth politics has driven the poet to the edge of insanity. Or just close enough to experiment wildly with his art.

Here we get the 70-year-old writer at “Old Fart’s Park” near his home in Rhode Island, walking or sitting in the truck with his dog before the winter ocean, worrying about ducks in the ice and the world sloping toward hell.

He leavens his despair with self-effacing humor, tender thoughts about his wife, and brilliant observations about the human heart’s capacity for the miraculous. And, let’s note, with a couple of rabbits on thin ice, a possum, mourning doves, a rhinoceros and a cast of characters who inhabited the 1960s newsroom (and nearby taverns) of the Detroit Free Press, where he was once a general assignment reporter. Winter’s Journey is a provocative, utterly original, laughing, weeping, quite entertaining cry of anguish from the belly of art and literature.

Occasionally, as in the long opening sentence of the first essay-like poem, Dobyns is point-blank political:

“A mile from where I live is a beach where in winter I walk the dog, console myself with the ocean’s beauty, and ponder the imponderables, like what to do about living in a country that has become an embarrassment, disliked and even hated around the world, a constant source of bickering among its people…”

And later on:

“… if the president sent those men and women to Iraq for reasons of personal vanity, I hope he never learns the truth, since how could he ever live with himself?”

(Note: The book was written during the last Bush administration, but it’s scorn of political and institutional leadership is universal.)

Brightening the darkening cynicism are rays of humor and hope. Recounting a trip to D.C. with his wife for an art exhibit featuring Cezanne and Vermeer, Dobyns writes:

“The White House and Capitol were ringed in by more armed guards than hairs on a hog … Al Gore was in town to warn Congress about global warming and was praised or sneered at along party lines, but when Florida’s voting machines are under ten feet of water, then perhaps the Republicans will think again – pardon the oxymoron….”

And commenting on the artists:

“Cezanne and Vermeer were good in the way Stalin and Hitler were bad; in the extremity of accomplishment they towered over their competition … You might think my comparison somewhat frivolous, but if it weren’t for the former, why would I want to live in a world with the latter?”

And this:

“Vermeer’s painting A Lady Writing a Letter makes me think that if a flawed human being can create an object so closely approaching the perfect, then perhaps there’s hope for the race as a whole, which is a notion I mostly doubt and which I went to Washington to reaffirm.”

Reaffirm his doubt or his shred of faith? Intentional poetic ambiguity, perhaps. But a few essays later he writes, “I’m looking for a miracle… Not that I think it will happen, I’m just keeping the possibility open.”

Dobyns does not promote solutions. He does plead for honest public discourse and a revival of moral vision. In plainspoken language, he challenges the conviction, embraced with religious fervor in our nation, that the United States, and therefore potentially the world, is always improving, growing better and safer.

He worries that so many Americans “still think evolution is an atheist plot and the earth is six thousand years old,” and about the mediocrity achieved by steadily reducing funding of schools, therefore “reducing people’s ability to tell the difference between certainty, possibility, probability and bullshit.”

Regrettably, he says in the first essay, “the commissars of modern poetry don’t like poems to talk about bloodshed and babies blown to smithereens…Is it the enormity of the daily calamity that makes so many contemporary poets write lines without meaning or use language to hide meaning?” Two or three essays later, he follows up:

“Chekov achieved his moral vision by what he called driving the slave out of himself while still a teenager. Mostly it meant ridding himself of thievery, pettiness, deceit and a readiness to flatter anyone with a little power. It’s hard for many students to do this – in fact, it’s hard for me, as well – so they write poems on tiptoe, not all, but most, making fucking, fretting about the past, and fussing over family matters the safest subjects. So who am I to find fault? But it creates an apathy to poetry.”

Dobyns comments several times about the reporters he worked with at the Detroit Free Press.
“Long ago as a reporter I envied the cynicism of the men with whom I worked. They had a clarity of vision, or so I thought, that let them see through another’s hyperbole and deceit, to grasp what they supposed to be the truth. Often they were right,” he says, “but … for many reporters, their cynicism became a canker and their question about anybody, saint or sinner, was what’s in it for him, what’s this guy trying to hide? The chance of virtue or decency was rarely an option.”

The challenge for us all, Dobyns writes, is to balance cynicism and wonder, tough as that may be, “like balancing a brick and a feather.”

“It’s back-breaking work,” he says, “to keep alive one’s feeling of delight when one has no doubt about the world’s constant acts of ugliness, the greed of small men, and the brutality of time’s unbroken progression.”

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Winter’s Journey, by Stephen Dobyns
Copper Canyon Press, 2010
65 pages, $15.00

Stephen Dobyns lives with his wife in Westerly, RI, and teaches in the M.F.A. Program at Warren Wilson College. He has taught at the University of Iowa, Sarah Lawrence College, Brandeis University, Syracuse University and Boston University. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pushcart Prizes and prizes from Poetry and The American Poetry Review.

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Dallas Lee

Dallas Lee, former writer and editor for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired as a speechwriter from Bank of America. He is author of The Cotton Patch Evidence: The Story of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Farm Experiment (Harper & Row 1971).