The Puritan and the World

Stephen Dunn

If I wanted more
of one thing, it was clear
I’d have to give up
something of another–
a third glass of wine, say,
would mean no dessert,
not even an espresso.
Look, I’m beautiful,
the world would whisper,
no need for you or anyone
to be parsimonious,
I brim over
with phlox or hydrangea,
manatees and Holsteins,
the arbitrary, the disparate.

The world thought
I didn’t understand it,
but I did, knew that to parse
was to narrow
and to narrow was to live
one good way.
Awash with desire
I also knew a little was plenty
and more than I deserved.
And because I was guilty
long before any verdict,
my dreams unspeakable,
I hunkered down
and buttoned up,
ready to give the world,
if I had to give it anything,
no more than
a closed-mouth kiss.

It was late afternoon,
late summer, a lone scud
streaking the sky,
and from my porch
I watched it drift away
from the world, this world
now cozying up to me,
claiming it, too, loves limits,
and offering shorelines
and riverbanks as proof,
the sweet pressures of death,
all the ripenings
that make possible the delicious.

But what I was hearing
was further evidence
that the world loved the all
of itself ad nauseam,
and would always lack–
when it came to truth telling–
the necessary cruelties
of exclusion.
The world got quiet; I thought
I might have quieted it.

Then I remembered
those cloud berries I picked
last summer in Nova Scotia.
They were bitter, truly awful,
and ever since
something in me
wanted their beautiful name
repudiated, the world
held accountable. Why couldn’t
I just relax? Dusk now
was giving way to nightfall
and half-moon majesty,
and purple martins, in flight,
began to save us–
the good as well as the vile–
from an onslaught of mosquitos.

The world was showing off
again, and in the wake
of its grandeur I sensed
an honest complaint forming
in the shape of a question.
It would be about bitterness,
I was sure, and would want
to know how a man like me–
hairsplitter that I was,
corrector, ingrate–
hadn’t developed a taste for it.

Which wouldn’t be the first time
the world had turned on me.
I am my discriminations
(I would want to answer),
that’s how I discover
what I love (sometimes,
I’d want to add). Meanwhile,
one of those rogue winds,
sudden and without motive,
came up from nowhere,
toppling the empty trash cans,
rolling them into the street.
I confess to a small pleasure
in returning them to the curb,
securing their lids,
while the world–smug
as a rose garden or as anything
that’s never had to think about itself–
continued to spin and dazzle.

Early comment on the new Stephen Dunn: the Dunn of old (my personal preferred Dunn) is back!

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