Stephen Dunn is one of the luminaries of what I like to think of as the Wisdom School of modern North American poetry. He lives and teaches in New Jersey, and is the quintessential secular humanist. His recent book Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs (Norton, 1998) is a very interesting experiment in poetic thinking. As is typical of the prose poetry genre, the pieces in this book are short, playful and involve many interesting leaps. What’s new is the call-and-response method of composition. That is to say, each poem or “riff” summons a “reciprocity,” which is usually not quite and often not at all the expected opposite. For example, faces calls up bodies; passion, paradox; fog, luminescence.
In this manner, the reader gets to sample linked thoughts that indulge themselves in all the contradictory messiness of ordinary, healthy thinking, albeit raised to a higher level of gracefulness and precision. (Hmmm, grace and precision, now . . . ) Thus, the book as a whole constitutes a very subtle attack on binary thinking. Highly recommended, like almost all the books I cite on this site (why would I waste my time otherwise?).
In fact, you’ll really have to track down a copy of the book if you want to see what I’m talking about. Not only would reproducing a whole pair be more than I want to risk here, but without the option of facing pages, this medium wouldn’t do it any justice. But since the scroll-like weblog page seems to favor chains of apothegms, let me at least include a few short excerpts. In each case except the fourth (“Acceptance”), the quote includes the ending of that particular piece. While this may distort by implying more finality than the full context would permit, I hope it conveys some sense of the balance and symmetry at work here. (Perhaps we can we think of each quote as one hand clapping?)
from Cynicism (p. 100):
“What do we value? What do we love? A skeptic is no one’s favorite lover, but I can’t help thinking as a skeptic might. I love what’s left after love has been tested. I value the doubt that gets the scientist to the solution. When a skeptic meets a cynic on the street: ‘Nice day, so far,’ the skeptic says. The cynic has to think about that.”
from Indifference (105):
“There’s evidence of life in hatefulness, which is why indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love. Between lovers, what’s worse than a shrug? . . . For those regulars of indifference, to whom so little matters, some synapse between brain and society has snapped, some link between hearts and other hearts. They are beyond hurt, these masters of distance, they don’t permit themselves the sweetness of the tragic world.”
from Religion (27):
“I’m saying this to myself: the sacred cannot be found unless you give up some old version of it. And when you do, mon semblable, mon frere, I swear there’ll be an emptiness it’ll take a lifetime to fill. Indulge, become capricious, give up nothing, Jack my corner grocer said. He was pushing the portobellos, but I was listening with that other, my neediest ear.”
from Acceptance (111):
“And then the expansion of what personal means: another person’s tragedy, a country’s collapse. The larger the personal becomes the greater our helplessness. Better to be furious at one thing, become radiant with purpose. Better to love links and rhythms than all-embracing answers.”
from Erasure (77):
“Any fictionist knows that one event, even if poorly executed, can make another happen, the slightest authenticity creating a path to the hidden. One way to revise: erase something, erase something else, see what’s left standing, then see if it deserves companions. Total erasure makes sense too, a grand cleaning up after the misconceived party, a starting over with a better nothing. The eros of beginnings! Yet even then, who doesn’t desire to leave a trail, barely followable, or dream of being properly found by someone who might exquisitely look and care?”