Note: I have added footnotes to tidy things up. If anyone knows of any elegant way to do this in html, please let me know. Also, I like that this is a note about footnotes. Do you?
For the last few days, I have immersed myself in Douglas Dunn’s 1985 collection, Elegies, while traveling around the country for spring break, the repose of many a teacher. I spent a weekend in Berkeley, CA, the land of interesting facial hair and mandatory recycling, with a day trip to Sonoma. Dunn’s volume, which was composed shortly after his wife’s death, clashed with everything I saw around me in California. The Scotsman’s reflective grieving process charted out so methodically on every page simply did not fit with the notes of elderflower I detected on a Gerwurztraminer in the Mayo Tasting Room. And how was I to sympathize with death while those around me vehemently squeezed every ounce of life out of a plastic bag, a water bottle, or even the straw from a juice box?
Luckily, I am in Ohio now. Thinking about death, mourning, and heartbreak just feels so right when it’s 35 degrees and raining outside. Apparently the real estate phrase applies to understanding poetry as well: “Location, location, location.” Here in the Buckeye state, where tomato juice is the state beverage, and flint is the state stone, I feel transported to Dunn’s Lowlands. This is the Scotland of America.
I originally purchased the slender Faber and Faber copy of Dunn’s Elegies in London at least five years ago. The Scottish poet first came to my attention through comparison with my beloved Philip Larkin; Dunn graduated from the University of Hull before working briefly at the Brynmor Jones Library under Larkin. This week’s choice also features some continuity with last week’s. We have homonymic poets (Donne and Dunn), identical structures (sonnets), and a shared theme (death), although Douglas Dunn might have gained some much needed comfort were he to seek solace in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X.
The Kaleidoscope – Douglas Dunn
To climb these stairs again, bearing a tray,
Might be to find you pillowed with your books,
Your inventories listing gowns and frocks
As if preparing for a holiday.
Or, turning from the landing, I might find
My presence watched through your kaleidoscope,
A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned
In lovely forms of foresight, prayer and hope.
I climb these stairs a dozen times a day
And, by the open door, wait, looking in
At where you died. My hands become a tray
Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.
Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry
For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.
Dunn’s late wife, Lesley Dunn, is the focus here, as in most of the poems in Elegies. As the addressee of the poem, Dunn describes her habits in the two quatrains of the sonnet.(1) The first image of her cataloguing clothes suggests organization. She is not preparing for a holiday,(2) but merely appears to be doing so. Lesley Dunn implicitly cannot prepare for a holiday because of her terminal cancer. This diagnosis becomes clear in another fine poem in the collection called “Second Opinion.” Understanding the poem in this way also adds a connotation to “pillowed” in the second line. Lesley is “pillowed” not from laziness or comfort, but from weakness. Framing this image as holiday preparation instead of a chore of bequeathal keeps the poet’s spirits elevated.
Dunn postpones these bleak connotations in the second quatrain, which introduces an image of Lesley that is wholly playful, even if the object of her attention reveals her sickness. Kaleidoscoping (officially a verb, now that I’ve turned it into a gerund) has nothing to do with preparations for death. It is an activity of pure recreation. Yet it metaphorically points to a classic image of death: the dying person briefly returns to childhood through the use of a childhood object or upon seeing an old photograph. Instead of dealing with the rigmarole of what shall go to whom, Lesley has advanced a stage to simply enjoying her final days or weeks of life. Simply put, she is having fun, while in the first quatrain she was consciously preparing for death, even if her husband tried to spin the action as holiday preparation. Sadness sneaks into the end of this quatrain in the form of the aforementioned object of Lesley’s attention. The poet climbing the stairs in the first stanza was still in denial. He did not want to think about his wife’s death and her preparations for it. Now, however, his kaleidoscopic expressions (“foresight, prayer and hope) reveal that Dunn has reached a more advanced stage of acceptance.
This elegant switch of focus serves as an early turn(3) in the sonnet and eases our path into the closing sestet, which focuses on Dunn’s grieving. The first half of the eleventh line (“At where you died.”) hammers home the meaning of the sonnet with its emphatic monosyllables. In the next sentence, occupying the latter half of the eleventh line and the entire twelfth line, epitomizes Dunn’s devotion using the Christian image of offering. The poet wants to offer himself completely in place of his dead wife.
If the poem were to end with the twelfth line, Dunn’s grieving process would appear as simple and one-dimensional. But in the last two lines, he turns back on his offering, suggesting that it is an example of how his grief has wronged him. By leading him to such a sacrificial state, his grief has misrepresented his beliefs. Instead, he seeks some sort of forgiveness, while still realizing that such forgiveness is “absurd.” We are left with a difficult situation. The sonnet has ended, but poet has not resolved his problem.
1. Since two friends have recently told me that they cannot understand most of what I write in this blog, I will endeavor to translate technical terms to layman’s terms. A quatrain is a group of four lines of poetry. A sonnet is a form of poetry that consists of two quatrains (each of four lines) and one sestet (a group of six lines). Different sonnet structures have different rhyme schemes, but Dunn’s sonnet does not follow any of these rhyme schemes exactly.
2. Dunn uses “Holiday” in the British sense, which is almost identical to the American word vacation. Using the American meaning, one could interpret this first quatrain to mean that Dunn’s wife has an special outfit for each public or religious holiday: a Christmas sweater, a charming pant suit for Burns Night, and a Guy Fawkes Night strapless number. Dashing.
3. The “turn” or “volta” of a sonnet traditionally occurs in the ninth line and introduces a new tone or a resolution to a problem stated in the first two quatrains (eight lines).
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