Lines of Defense

Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Dunn’s seventeenth collection finds the poet in his golden years, looking back at the moments and decisions upon which a life hinges—particularly in the context of a poet’s career and the “long road” of marriage. The conceit of a journey winds its way throughout, and the early “Before We Leave” suggests both a groom’s warning to his bride and, perhaps, a writer’s to his readers: “Follow me. Don’t follow me. I will / say such things, and mean both.” This is but one example of Dunn’s concluding turns; in poem after poem he uses his endings to subvert, unsettle, or deepen what’s come before. In the book’s third section, Dunn shows off his philosophically minded humor in poems like “Another Argument with Jim about the Soul,” and revisits an age-old question in “The Chicken and the Egg.” Dunn also offers some subtle commentary on the nature of writing, with lines that seem like miniature ars poeticas in themselves. “Every day, if I could,” Dunn writes, “I’d oppose history by altering one detail,” describing what sounds like the daily work of a poet. Later, realizing that he was able to process his grief over his brother’s death “only when his son spoke,” Dunn suggests the potential and importance of poetry when he finally hears his “brother restored, / abstracted, made of words now.”

This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2014.