‘all the golden retrievers wore red bandannas’


The Snowmass Cycle
Stephen Dunn
for Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown


The sailor dreamt of loss,
but it was I who dreamt the sailor.
I was landlocked, sea-poor.
The sailor dreamt of a woman
who stared at the sea, then tired
of it, advertised her freedom.
She said to her friend: I want
all the fire one can have
without being consumed by it.
Clearly, I dreamt the woman too.
I was surrounded by mountains
suddenly green after a long winter,
a chosen uprootedness, soul shake-up,
every day a lesson about the vastness
between ecstasy and repose.
I drank coffee called Black Forest
at the local cafe. I took long walks
and tried to love the earth
and hate its desecrations.
All the Golden Retrievers wore red
bandannas on those muttless streets.
All the birches, I think, were aspens.
I do not often remember my dreams,
or dream of dreamers in them.
To be without some of the things
you want, a wise man said,
is an indispensable part of happiness.


I’ve been paying attention
to the sky again.
I’ve seen a ravine up there,
and a narrow, black gorge.
Not to worry, I tell myself,
about tricks the mind plays,
as long as you know they’re tricks.

If the rich are casually cruel
perhaps it’s because
they can stare at the sky
and never see an indictment
in the shape of clouds.

The frown, for example,
in a thunderhead. The fist.

That big mountain
I’ve been looking at—
I love how it borrows purple
from the filtered light,
sometimes red.

Like any of us
it’s all of its appearances.

It’s good that the rich
have to die,
a peasant saying goes,
otherwise they’d live forever.

Here in this rented house,
high up, I understand.
I’m one of the rich
for a while. The earth feels
mine and the air I breathe
is rarefied, if thin.

Dusk now is making its last claim.
I love the confluence
of dark mountain, dark sky.
Soon I won’t know the beginning
from the end.

3. HIM

Those empty celebrations of the half-believer
along for the ride.
Those secret words repeated in mirrors—
someone’s personal fog.
A man’s heart ransomed for comfort
or a few extra bucks, his soul in rags.

I have been him and him and him.

Was it nobility or senility
when my old grandmother tried to drown
artificial flowers in the bathtub?

Can only saints carry the load
without talking about the burden?

I want to lean into life,
catch the faintest perfume.

In every boy child an old man is dying.
By middle age
he begins to stink, complain.

I want to have gifts for him
when we finally meet.
I want him to go out like an ancient
Egyptian, surrounded
by what is his, desiring nothing.


A lost hour, and that animal lassitude
after a vanished afternoon.
Outside: joggers, cyclists.
Motion, the great purifier, is theirs.
If this were Europe someone in a tower
might be ringing a bell.
People hearing it would know
similar truths, might even know
exactly who they are.
It’s getting near drinking time.
It’s getting near getting near;
a person alone conjures rules
or can liquefy, fall apart.
That woman with the bouffant—
chewing gum, waiting for the bus—
someone thinks she’s beautiful.
It’s beautiful someone does.
The sky’s murmuring, the storm
that calls you up,
makes promises, never comes.
Somewhere else, no doubt,
a happy man slicing a tomato,
a woman with a measuring cup.
Somewhere else: the foreclosure
of a feeling or a promise,
followed by silence or shouts.
Here, the slow dance of contingency,
an afternoon connected to an evening
by a slender wish. Sometimes absence
makes the heart grow sluggish
and desire only one person, or one thing.
I am closing the curtains.
I am helping the night.


A few days ago I stopped looking
at the photographs
clustered on the wall, nudes,
which had become dull to me,
like a tourist’s collection of smooth rocks.

I turned away from the view
and conjured a plague of starlings.
Oh how they darkened the landscape.

Surely such beauty had been waiting for its elegy.
I felt like crushing a rhododendron.

Now and again I feel the astonishment
of being alive like this, in this body,
the ventricles and the small bones
in the hand, the intricacies of digestion ….

When the radio said parents in California
gave birth to another child
so that their older child might have
a bone-marrow transplant and live,

I found myself weeping
for such complicated beauty.
How wonderful the radio
and its distant, human voices.

The rain now is quite without consequence
coming down.

I suppose I’ve come to the limits
of my paltry resources, this hankering
for people and for massive disturbance,
then high pressure,
the sequence that’s been promised for days.

I will long to be alone
when my friends arrive.


The body widens, and people are welcomed
into it, many at a time. This must be
what happens when we learn to be generous
when we’re not in love, or otherwise charmed.
I’ve been examining yesterday’s ashes. I’ve visited
my own candleless altar. Little by little,
the old selfish parts of me are loosening.
I have a plan for becoming lean: to use
all my fat in service of expansion. Have women
always known this? Loveliness and fear
when they open and let in and give away?
The mountains here pierce the sky,
and the sky, bountiful, closes in around them.


Give me a new mouth; I want to talk.
I’ve been watching the spider mend its web.
I think I’ve learned something
about architecture from a swallow.
Excuse me while I separate the nettles
from the flowers, while I put my nose
to the black moist smell of earth
and come up smiling. Somewhere in the world
is the secret name
for God, many-lettered, unpronounceable.
There’s a speakable grace
in the fields and even in the cities.
The grapes ripen, someone refuses to become
a machine. And yet I want to talk
about the worn-out husks of men and women
returning from the factories,
the venereal streets, the bruise history
passes down to its forlorn children.
I need a new mouth to acknowledge
that piety will keep us small, imprisoned,
that it’s all right to be ridiculous
and sway first to the left, then to the right,
in order to find our balance.
I’ve been watching
an evening star quiver. I’ve been trying
to identify the word before its utterance.
Give me a new mouth and I’ll be
a guardian against forgetfulness.
I’ve noticed the wind doesn’t discriminate
between sycamore and cypress.
I want to find the cool, precise language
for how passion gives rise to passion.


The wind gone. I can hear my breathing.
I can hear the lateness of the hour
by what isn’t moving.

Woodrun Slope. Snowmass Village.
These are winter names, and it’s summer.
The water from the mountains
rushes down man-made gullies.

Serious phantoms with their black tears
are out tonight.
I’m close—my other delusion goes—
to the heart of things.

A young man with a young man’s itch
would rise and go out prowling.

Tomorrow I’ll choose a mountain
that’s a hill, take the slowest horse
at the Lazy-7, slow and old,
sure to know its trail.

I knew a man who said he could dominate
solitude. In other ways, too,
he was a fool.

Once I wanted to be
one of those fabulous strangers
who appear and disappear.
Now I arrive only by invitation,
stay long enough to earn my fare.

Outside my window, clouds from the west
erasing the stars.
A coyote howling its singular news.

At whatever pace,
isn’t there an imperative to live?

Before a person dies he should experience
the double fire,
of what he wants and shouldn’t have.

Photo by Alexi Ohre on Unsplash

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