Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tenderness - Stephen Dunn

 Today's is another by Stephen Dunn (1939 - ), from his seventh book of poetry.  I think you'll agree, after reading, that the poem itself is written with great tenderness and that bittersweet quality of learning a truth almost too late to be of use.  Read it once "ignoring" the line breaks so that the narrative of the story is clear, and then again noting them, both visually and sounded aloud.  I am particularly taken by how it "turns" at the end, with the narrator understanding now what he didn't before.

Back then when so much was clear
         and I hadn’t learned
young men learn from women

what it feels like to feel just right,
         I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, a husband

in prison for breaking someone’s head.
         Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness

was how much she wanted it, and all
         I knew
were back seats and a night or two

in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
         We worked
in the same office, banter and loneliness

leading to the shared secret
         that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits

was wildly comic, which led to my body
         existing with hers
like rain that’s found its way underground

to water it naturally joins.
         I can’t remember
ever saying the exact word, tenderness,

though she did.  It’s a word I see now
         you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it

often enough to know what silk and deep balm
         it is
when at last it comes.  I think it was terror

at first that drove me to touch her
         so softly,
then selfishness, the clear benefit

of doing something that would come back
         to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became

reflexive and motionless in the high
         ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are abstract

until they have an ache in them.  I met
         a woman never touched
gently, and when I ended between us

I had new hands and new sorrow,
         everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.

                                                                               Stephen Dunn- American

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