Stephen Dobyns’ poetry collection, entitled Winter’s Journey, is replete with narrative and stream of consciousness poetry. It is a collection I found well worth reading, not just for the poetry, but for the philosophical questions raised about the purpose of poetry.
In terms of technique, Dobyns has a way of keeping a reader fascinated with his mind-workings, so I am willing to follow along, trusting that most always the twists and turns are worth it. Dobyns uses facts, information and various forms of endeavor as a springboard into deeper meaning.
For instance, in “Balance,” Dobyns describes several Vermeer paintings in the course of expressing the spiritual worth of a life. And in “Rabbits,” he describes the left and right sides of the brain, while expressing his desire to be open to the possibility of miracles.
In terms of the purpose of poetry, in “Napatree Point,” Dobyns says that poetry that does not strive to convey meaning “seems a kind of shirking.” For me, as hard as it is to make sense of our lives, striving for meaning may, in the end, be all we have. I don’t write poems to be deliberately obfuscating, or try to out-clever the reader. I want to communicate, I want to find meaning at the bottom of things.
One purpose, Dobyns believes, is that poetry must address the political issues of our time, instead of just “flowers and sex” (“Napatree Point”), in order to be relevant, in order to be meaningful. Along this line, in “Possum,” Dobyns writes, ”I feel guilty pursuing the usual material when the world hovers on the brink of collapse.”
I confess at times I had the impression that Dobyns had been writing along and suddenly realized he hadn’t mentioned a current horror or made a political comment, and then felt compelled to throw in a few zingers. For instance, I am not sure how much references to President Bush added to poems like “Looking for the Dog” and “Chain Saws.”
But perhaps my impression stems from the difficulty in writing a political poem. I totally agree in theory that such poems should be written. Indeed, I believe so many of the problems in the world can best be expressed in the less linear and direct form that poetry offers, arising as poetry does from another place within us. But how do we do this, while avoiding telling, lecturing, polemics, beating readers over the head, coming off as pedantic and patronizing?
For the most part, Dobyns succeeds in expressing both the beauty and the brutality in this world without falling into the traps I fear.
In addition to the purpose of poetry, in “Ducks,” Dobyns raises the thought-provoking question as to why we write poetry, our motive, our impulse, more than aim. Is it vanity, is it because we cannot not write, or is it simply for the poem itself?
Before closing, I must mention two of my favorite poems in the collection. “Rhinoceros” is an odd title I suppose for a love poem, but a love poem it is. How often we adopt the tough hide, the wounding horn to protect ourselves from the vulnerability we feel when we love. Isn’t it so? It does not matter to me to lose what I don’t care about. I only fear the loss of what I love. How to be brave and cherish even knowing we lose everything in the end?
“Mourning Doves” meanders from bird behavior to the highs and lows of human achievement, to Dobyns’ mother, to his cat. And it ends with a punch. In the last half of the last line, Dobyns writes, “This is an elegy.” Indeed it is – for his mother.
Thus, even with his emphasis on the political, Dobyns knows that, in the search for meaning and why we can’t help but write, love and loss are paramount.