Stephen Dunn is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, including the recent What Goes On: Selected & New Poems 1995-2009. His Different Hours was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. In 2009 he received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland.
A Discreet Charm
Our good friends are with us, Jack and Jen,
old lefties with whom we now and then share
what we don’t call our wealth. We clink our
wine glasses, and I say, Let’s drink to privilege . . .
the privilege of evenings like this.
All our words have a radical past, and Jack
is famous for wanting the cog to fit the wheel,
and for the wheel to go straight
down some good-cause road. But he says
No, let’s drink to an evening as solemn
as Eugene Debs demanding fair wages—
his smile the bent arrow only the best men
can point at themselves. I serve the salad
Barbara has made with pine nuts, fennel,
and fine, stinky cheese. It’s too beautiful to eat,
Jen says, but means it only as a compliment.
Over the years she’s eaten the beautiful
and accommodated mixed feelings, walked
through squalor as often as the rest of us
to reach some golden center of a city.
Here’s to an evening of contradictions,
I say, let’s never live without them.
We’re in northern Appalachia
where strip mining and slag heaps
uglify the nearby mountains, and where
the already poor will lose their jobs
if the ugliness is corrected.
A sign on the interstate says Noah’s Ark
Being Rebuilt Here. Here is where irony
dies its regular public death, and many believe
they’re telling the truth
by simply saying what they think,
which means here is like most places.
Jack’s about to say something, but the scallops
dappled with sesame seeds and wrapped in bacon
are ready. They’re especially delicious,
Barbara says, because they’re unnecessary.
Our friends don’t seem to think that’s funny,
but we all dig in to the unnecessary as if
we can’t get enough of it. As I was about to say,
Jack says, Ever since Obama, I’m feeling
a widespread sense of decency, aren’t all of you?
I’d like to agree with him, but widespread
suddenly makes me think of the night sky
and large, empty spaces. More like pinpricks
of decency, I want to say, isolated little outposts,
but here comes Barbara with the shameless
store-bought cheesecake called Strawberry Swirl,
which, for a while, tends to end all arguments,
though there was a time we’d have renounced it—
back then when evenings like this were emblems
of excess and vapidity and a life that made us furious.