Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns has published twenty-one works of fiction, a book of essays on poetry (Best Words, Best Order), and ten books of poems, most recently Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, which has been called “a cycle of medieval morality poems for a new Dark Age.”

Dobyns’ poems have won many awards and prizes, his novels have been translated into some fifteen languages, and two of them have been made into films. Whether working in prose or poetry, he is a story-teller of great playfulness, caustic wit, and heartfelt tenderness, provocative and deeply curious. Dobyns has taught at many colleges and universities; currently he lives outside Boston and is a contributing writer for the San Diego Reader.

Poetry Center Reading:

Fall 2000

Can Poetry Matter?

Heart feels the time has come to compose lyric poetry.
No more storytelling for him. Oh, Moon, Heart writes,
sad wafer of the heart’s distress. And then: Oh, Moon,
bright cracker of the heart’s pleasure. Which is it,
is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He looks
from the window but the night is overcast. Oh, Cloud,
he writes, moody veil of the Moon’s distress. And then,
Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon’s repose. Once more
Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the moon sad
or at rest? He calls scientists who tell him that the moon
is a dead piece of rock. He calls astrologers. One says
the moon means water. Another that it signifies oblivion.
The girl next door says the Moon means love. The nut
up the block says it proves that Satan has us under his thumb.
Heart goes back to his notebooks. Oh, Moon, he writes,
confusing orb meaning one thing or another. Heart feels
that his words lack conviction. Then he hits on a solution.
Oh, Moon, immense hyena of introverted motorboat.
Oh, Moon, upside down lamppost of barbershop quartet.
Heart takes his lines to a critic who tells him that the poet
is recounting a time as a toddler when he saw his father
kissing the baby-sitter at the family’s cottage on a lake.
Obviously, the poem explains the poet’s fear of water.
Heart is ecstatic. He rushes home to continue writing.
Oh, Cloud, raccoon cadaver of colored crayon, angel spittle
recast as foggy euphoria. Heart is swept up by the passion
of composition. Freed from the responsibility of content,
no nuance of nonsense can be denied him. Soon his poems
appear everywhere, while the critic writes essays elucidating
Heart’s meaning. Jointly they form a sausage factory of poetry:
Heart supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue of language
which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of explication.
Lyric poetry means teamwork, thinks Heart: a hog farm,
corn field, and two old dobbins pulling a buckboard of song.

From PALLBEARERS ENVYING THE ONE WHO RIDES (Penguin, 1999)

How To Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing. The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept-
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

From VELOCITIES: NEW & SELECTED POEMS (Penguin, 1994)

Oh, Immobility, Death

* * *

Each dance step we execute is a slap in the face
of immobility. Are you light on your feet? Do you wear
tap shoes and feel an elasticity of sole and thus
you spring upward? What makes this more than
merely bouncing? Because you seek a chosen path.
Some tunes jingle inside, some tunes jingle outside.
This is when the extremities recall having been wings,
when the blue sky bends down to help us heavenward.
Just yesterday you weighed three hundred pounds and
now you’re a feather rising on the notes of somebody’s
whistling. What is music anyway? ask the scientists.
Being limited by what they know, they turn to math.
It must be counting, it must be numbers, it must be time.
And what is music’s opposite? Silence? Almost correct.
Music’s opposite is the tomb and so we dance to keep
the shadows back if only from the heart’s dark corners.
The grave cannot stand a racket and even a tapped foot
is a form of boogie. You call it time? It is forever.
To spin on the pinnacle of one’s genitals. To kiss
gravity goodbye. To bear the souls of birds in the belly,
as harmonies loop and dip behind your eyes. This one
likes Bach, this one Bop, this one likes the Beatles:
and so their feet are carried aloft, lungs throb and
palpitate, the pores pour forth their cheery tears
of pleasure. Even the skeleton chants a creaky song.
And immobility? It only has to wait. What is age but
the process of bringing the dancing inward? The heart
opens and two by two the dancing feet pass through:
an ark sailing the body’s blessed blood to the grave.
You had your battle, little soldier. You danced a lifetime.
Those stones and monuments, those memorials and tombs:
without their weight the ground would hop. Oh, immobility!

* * *

Oh, immobility, how thoroughly you set yourself
against us. Gravity’s buddy, entropy’s pal.
Every stoplight becomes your flag. The erect
cop with his hand raised to articulate halt
wears your uniform, no matter the color; or rather,
he duplicates your gesture. The simple negative-
no, nein, nicht, nada, nyet-becomes a vote cast
in your favor. Silence is your national anthem,
a vulture your favorite bird, rust your flavor.
Meanwhile we trot: one foot forward, then the next.
Not straight, not crooked, but in a circle. Perhaps
we produce a few sparks. Perhaps we go toot toot.
My right hand extends to where it grips the shoulder
of the fellow straight ahead, perhaps my left grasps
the hand of the one jogging at my side. You get
the point. You might think that we are unhappy.
We are singing. True, it is nothing too lively,
but it is loud enough to let us shuffle our feet.
Immobility is the focus of our muted ruckus.
And the orchestra? Let’s say a disembodied violin
hangs in the night air with its cracked bow jazzing
across the catgut. Scratch, scratch. You find it ugly?
It is the sum of earthly beauty. It plays the tune
that drives us forward. We have begun to love it,
just as we love the trudging feet, the beating heart,
the joys of flatulence, the rush of blood in the brain:
just a few of the roadsters on our daily racetrack.
I ponder this as I sit on my bed poking at my slippers.
Sunlight chips a morning wedge across the carpet.
Outside, the daily hammering is well advanced.
Time to get up, old carcass: to work, to work!
Set your feet among the flux! Drag your shadow
out across the land! It’s time to mingle your shoes
with the buyers and sellers, one foot forward, then
the next. The reality? To bang your drum in the mortal
parade. And the dream? To believe yourself dancing.

From PALLBEARERS ENVYING THE ONE WHO RIDES (Penguin, 1999)