The Vanishings
Stephen Dunn
One day it will vanish,
how you felt when you were overwhelmed
by her, soaping each other in the shower,
or when you heard the news
of his death, there in the T-Bone diner
on Queens Boulevard amid the shouts
of short-order cooks, Armenian, oblivious.
One day one thing and then a dear other
will blur and though they won’t be lost
they won’t mean as much,
that motorcycle ride on the dirt road
to the deserted beach near Cadiz,
the Guardia mistaking you for a drug-runner,
his machine gun in your belly—
already history now, merely your history,
which means everything to you.
You strain to bring back
your mother’s face and full body
before her illness, the arc and tenor
of family dinners, the mysteries
of radio, and Charlie Collins,
eight years old, inviting you
to his house to see the largest turd
that had ever come from him, unflushed.
One day there’ll be almost nothing
except what you’ve written down,
then only what you’ve written down well,
then little of that.
The march on Washington in ’68
where you hoped to change the world
and meet beautiful, sensitive women
is choreography now, cops on horses,
everyone backing off, stepping forward.
The exam you stole and put back unseen
has become one of your stories,
overtold, tainted with charm.
All of it, anyway, will go the way of icebergs
come summer, the small chunks floating
in the Adriatic until they’re only water,
pure, and someone taking sad pride
that he can swim in it, numbly.
For you, though, loss, almost painless,
that Senior Prom at the Latin Quarter—
Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, and you
just interested in your date’s cleavage
and staying out all night at Jones Beach,
the small dune fires fueled by driftwood.
You can’t remember a riff or a song,
and your date’s a woman now, married,
has had sex as you have
some few thousand times, good sex
and forgettable sex, even boring sex,
oh you never could have imagined
back then with the waves crashing
what the body could erase.
It’s vanishing as you speak, the soul-grit,
the story-fodder,
everything you retrieve is your past,
everything you let go
goes to memory’s out-box, open on all sides,
in cahoots with thin air.
The jobs you didn’t get vanish like scabs.
Her good-bye, causing the phone to slip
from your hand, doesn’t hurt anymore,
too much doesn’t hurt anymore,
not even that hint of your father, ghost-thumping
on your roof in Spain, hurts anymore.
You understand and therefore hate
because you hate the passivity of understanding
that your worst rage and finest
private gesture will flatten and collapse
into history, become invisible
like defeats inside houses. Then something happens
(it is happening) which won’t vanish fast enough,
your voice fails, chokes to silence;
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

Photo by Rose Elena on Unsplash

things to say to you


Some Things I Wanted to Say to You
Stephen Dunn
If the horse that you ride
is blind it’s good
that it also be slow,
and please stroke it
a hundred more times than you would
the powerful dazzling one.

To be generous is one thing,
but there’s a clerk in some of us,
quick to say yes.
Worry about the command
in the suggestion.
Worry about smiles, and those men
whose business is business.

There are joys and enigmas
of an evening alone
to appreciate.
There are always the simple events
of your life
that you might try to convert
into legend.

Did you know
a good dog in your house
can make you more thoughtful,
even more moral?
And sex without conversation,
sex that’s erotic or sleepy…
oh don’t let anybody tell you
there’s a wrong way to have it.

Tell your lovers the world
robs us in so many ways
that a caress is your way
of taking something back.
Tell the dogs and the horses
you love them more than cars.
speak to everything

would be my advice.

night truths


For J. in sleeplessness

Night Truths
Stephen Dunn
I’ve known an edginess, come evening,
when I haven’t chosen to be alone, but am,
the necessity of music, the implacable silence
of the telephone, when my faith is faith
in the provisional, wild, no consolation
in it, and deeply, late at night, in the
peaty, musk-scented, moon-driven dark
I’ve felt so singular,
so importantly sorry for myself,
or so exquisitely stilled, attuned,
that I knew there were night truths
unavailable to lovers or the loved,
though I might be close to them,
and have put off sleep because sleep
is social, intrusive, all the uninvited
waiting to make their appearances, put it off
until it came for me, ignorantly, persuasive.

‘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

the personal


Essay on the Personal
Stephen Dunn
Because finally the personal
is all that matters,
we spend years describing stones,
chairs, abandoned farmhouses—
until we’re ready. Always
it’s a matter of precision,
what it feels like
to kiss someone or to walk
out the door. How good it was
to practice on stones
which were things we could love
without weeping over. How good
someone else abandoned the farmhouse,
bankrupt and desperate.
Now we can bring a fine edge
to our parents. We can hold hurt
up to the sun for examination.
But just when we think we have it,
the personal goes the way of
belief. What seemed so deep
begins to seem naive, something
that could be trusted
because we hadn’t read Plato
or held two contradictory ideas
or women in the same day.
Love, then, becomes an old movie.
Loss seems so common
it belongs to the air,
to breath itself, anyone’s.
We’re left with style, a particular
way of standing and saying,
the idiosyncratic look
at the frown which means nothing
until we say it does. Years later,
long after we believed it peculiar
to ourselves, we return to love.
We return to everything
strange, inchoate, like living
with someone, like living alone,
settling for the partial, the almost
satisfactory sense of it.

different heights


Each from Different Heights
Stephen Dunn
That time I thought I was in love
and calmly said so
was not much different from the time
I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud
to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius
of my hands.
And the times I felt less in love,
less than someone,
were, to be honest, not so different
Each was ridiculous in its own way
and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.
I am astounded
by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights
diminished, which is simply the law.
And the big bruise
from the longer fall looked perfectly white
in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.

Photo by Kai Dahms on Unsplash