Stephen Dunn’s passing on 24 June 2021—his eighty-second birthday—was an especially sad and noteworthy moment in The Georgia Review’s seventy-four-year history—and also for me, because I had the pleasure and honor of calling him a friend for more than three decades.
When I arrived at the office of the Review on the University of Georgia campus in July of 1983 to begin work as the assistant editor, the Summer issue was newly arrived and did not include a Stephen Dunn poem—but the Winter 1983 did, as had Spring 1980, Spring 1981, Fall 1981, and Winter 1982. GR’s latest (since 1977) editor, the late Stanley W. Lindberg, was obviously attuned to Dunn’s work, which became a staple for Stan and then for me across the next nearly forty years.
The Summer 2000 GR included a twelve-poem Dunn feature, and not too much later we reprinted that gathering in a limited-edition chapbook—one of six we produced from as many featured poets. (The others were Rita Dove, Albert Goldbarth, Maxine Kumin, Philip Levine, and Maurya Simon.) In our closing sentence to Dunn’s introduction we noted, “During the past twenty years, no poet has published more often in The Georgia Review than has Stephen Dunn.” And by the time of his final appearance in GR in the Summer of 2018, just about a year before my retirement from the journal after thirty-six years, Stephen’s “count” in GR’s pages was sixty-plus poems, nine essays, and two interviews—one of them self-conducted.
In 2001 Stephen’s Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Soon thereafter we brought him to the University of Georgia for a reading, and—here is where the going gets rough—while Stephen and I were out to lunch at an old Athens staple called the Last Resort, he told me he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the progressive hell he coped with so resolutely for two full decades. (As a close friend said to me right after the news of Stephen’s death hit the New York Times and the rest of the country, “Nobody should have to suffer so long as he did with that —ing disease.”)
True as that assertion is, Stephen continued to write, year after year, with his unique versions of psychological nuance, his fondness for both wry and belly-laugh humor, his laser-like obliteration of pretense and obtuseness, his alternately softhearted and hardnosed takes on love, and so much more. (He never asked me what I thought his fallback occupation should have been, but if he had I’d have said “psychiatrist.”)
About a decade ago I was invited by Laura McCullough to contribute to a book she was putting together, The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn, and I chose to build my case around a GR Dunn poem, “Losing Steps,” in which he uses his successful college basketball career to frame an explanation of what is and isn’t lost in every element of a life. My opening words spoke of “Smart, sensitive, and sly” Stephen Dunn, and I today find myself still sticking by those three common and complicated words.
So, go ahead, you readers of these remarks I feel so sad and privileged to make, and ask me which are my favorite Georgia Review Stephen Dunn poems.
I can’t do it—but I can share with you a couple that I know will always have to be at least very near the top of my list.
For one of them I go back to the first that came out after I joined the masthead, that Winter 1983 poem about which I will say only that I believe it shows many of the hallmarks I attribute to Stephen’s work:
—for Lyn Harrison
I used to think:
out of small things, a lifetime.
Out of a night full of stars,
a universe. But tonight
I want to pick, deny,
believe only in the irrational
to where the gods lie
in their spacious graves.
Out of small things, perhaps,
fragments, a scattering.
Out of a night full of stars,
one that falls
seemingly in our direction.
Enough. All that’s falling
is the temperature. And the world
is down here in neighborhoods
where trash piles up
and I’ve danced
and, in time, will dance again.
I know the moon, this awful night,
is saying something
uplifting to the sea.
I know starfish and sharks
exist without contradiction.
Lyn dead at thirty-one
who allowed me to compliment her
on her thinness when only she knew.
Lyn, who had enough time
To be appalled and fascinated.
Now, if I were inclined to cheat on my promise and mention the Dunn poem I most wish had appeared in GR, that might have to be “If a Clown,” which appeared in The New Yorker before it was included in Here and Now (2011). The droll narrator begins with a question: “If a clown came out of the woods, / a standard-looking clown with oversized / polka-dot shoes” and walked onto your suburban lawn, then “there’d be nothing funny about that.” In its remaining forty-odd lines the poem becomes even stranger, and even smarter, as Dunn continues his hallmark intention of seeing the world deeply and anew, asking “would the connection / between the comic and the appalling, / as it pertained to clowns, be suddenly so clear / that you’d be paralyzed by it?”
And for my other impossible-to-choose GR favorite, I was going to go with the last of Stephen’s poems The Georgia Review brought out, “A Postmortem Guide (2),”—once again for my eulogist, in advance—from Summer 2018. (GR had published “A Postmortem Guide”—for my eulogist, in advance—in Fall 1999). However, my good former colleagues at the journal had already had the good judgment to post the two on the website.
So, instead, I’ll reach back to another early piece, “Because We Are Not Taken Seriously,” whose mix of tones and attitudes provide, both directly and subtly, the epitome of that smart, sensitive, and sly poet I respect and love so much: as he ponders this “clown without a context,”
Some night I wish they’d knock
on my door, the government men,
looking for the poem of simple truths
recited and whispered among the people.
and when all I give them is silence
and my children are exiled
to the mountains, my wife forced
to renounce me in public,
I’ll be the American poet
whose loneliness, finally, is relevant,
whose slightest movement
And when the revolution frees me,
its leaders wanting me to become
“Poet of the Revolution,” I’ll refuse
and keep a list of their terrible reprisals
and all the dark things I love
which they will abolish.
With the ghost of Mandelstam
on one shoulder, Lorca on the other.
I’ll write the next poem, the one
that will ask only to be believed,
once it’s in the air, singing.
Explore more poems from Stephen Dunn in The Georgia Review archive, and read his 2018 interview with Helena Feder.