Stephen Dobyns (born 1941)
Stanford Mohr Poet 2011
Stephen Dobyns

Stanford Poetry Reading
The Jean & Bill Lane Lecture Series

Cubberley Auditorium, Stanford University

Monday, January 31, 2011, 8:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: A good crowd showed up at Stanford's Cubberley Auditorium for Stephen Dobyn's Poetry Reading. Eavan Boland thanked Nancy and Larry Mohr for sponsoring the Mohr Visiting Poet at Stanford. Here are some remarks when she introduced Dobyns— “Dobyns taught at Sarah Lawrence College, University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University. He won the 1972 Lamont Poetry Award, and received fellowships from National Endownment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation. He has published 21 books of fiction and 15 books of poetry including Porcupine's Kisses [2002] and Winter's Journey [2010]. In Narrative Magazine [Fall 2009], Dobyns writes ["Poem"]: "Who has the time? he asked. / But none in the room wore a watch. / On the hearth lay a dog, its two / front paws making parallel lines. / It's eleven o'clock, said another, / the day has scarcely begun. / But the dog was a black dog, / black with one blind eye. / It's nearing midnight, said a third, / and which of us is ready?" In a recent interview [Cortland Review, Issue 26, Spring 2004], Dobyns says "I like a long line" in exploring frontiers that the voice dissolves into. In 20th Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry [1984], Robert Hass loves Dobyns for saying that "metaphor is a participatory act; it surprises the reader into self-knowledge. It heightens his relationship to himself." In Dobyns' poem "How to Like It", he writes about a man and his dog. There's a magic charm and spacious feeling, but the poem is much darker, about anti-intimacy along the nighttime roads— "How is it possible to want so many things and still want nothing?" Let's welcome Stephen Dobyns to read to us tonight.” The February 1, 2011 issue of Stanford Daily reported on Dobyns Poetry Reading on the first page. I've transcribed Stephen Dobyn's Stanford Reading to share with poetry lovers. Web links and reference denoted in [brackets] are my additions. Eight Dobyns poems were found on the web and are linked next to their titles. Poem 7 "Payback" and Poem 12 "Mourning Doves" were typed from Mystery, So Long and Winter's Journey found in the stacks at Stanford Green Library. Poems 8-11 "Wisdom", "Stars", "Laugh", and "Turd" were not found in Dobyns's books or on the web. These newer Dobyns poems will be posted when available. My photo of Dobyns reading at Cubberley Auditorium (8:18 pm) came out well and is posted above.

Stephen Dobyns: This is a pre-Berlin Wall poem before it was torn down.

(1) THE GARDENER (web)

After the first astronauts reached heaven
the only god discovered in residence
retired to a little brick cottage
in the vicinity of Venus. He was not
unduly surprised. He had seen it coming
since Luther. Besides, what with the imminence
of nuclear war, his job was nearly over.
As soon as the fantastic had become
a commonplace, bus tours were organized
and once or twice a day the old fellow
would be trotted out from his reading of Dante
and asked to do a few tricks— lightning bolts,
water spouting from a rock, blood from a turnip.
A few of the remaining cherubim
would fly in figure eights and afterwards
sell apples from the famous orchard.
In the evening, the retired god would sometimes
receive a visit from his old friend the Devil.
They would smoke their pipes before the fire.
The Devil would stroke his whiskers and cover
his paws with his long furry tail. The mistake,
he was fond of saying, was to make them in
your image instead of mine. Perhaps, said
the ex-deity. He hated arguing. The mistake,
he had often thought, was to experiment
with animal life in the first place when
his particular talent was as a gardener.
How pleasant Eden had been in those early days
with its neat rows of cabbages and beets,
flowering quince, a hundred varieties of rose.
But of course he had needed insects and then
he made the birds, the red ones which he loved;
later came his experiments with smaller mammals—
squirrels and moles, a rabbit or two. When
the temptation had struck him to make something
really big, he had first conceived of it
as a kind of scarecrow to stand in the middle
of the garden and frighten off predators. What
voice had he listened to that convinced him
to give the creature his own face? No voice
but his own. It had amused him to make
a kind of living mirror, a little homunculus
that could learn a few of his lesser tricks.
And he had imagined sitting in the evening
with his friend the Devil watching the small
human creatures frolic in the grass. They would
be like children, good natured and always singing.
When had he realized his mistake? Perhaps
when he smiled down at the first and it
didn't smile back; when he reached down to help
it to its feet and it shrugged his hand aside.
Standing up, it hadn't walked on the paths marked
with white stones but on the flowers themselves.
It's lonely, God had said. So he made it a mate,
then watched them feed on each other's bodies,
bicker and fight and trample through his garden,
dissatisfied with everything and wanting to escape.
Naturally, he hadn't objected. Kicked out,
kicked out, who had spread such lies? Shaking
and banging the bars of the great gate, they had
begged him for the chance to make it on their own.

Cemetery Nights, pp. 2-3
     Viking Penguin, New York (1987)

Dobyns: This poem is all reality based.

(2) HOW TO LIKE IT (web)

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let's pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn't been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let's go down to the diner and sniff
people's legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man's mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let's go to sleep. Let's lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he'll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let's just go back inside.
Let's not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich.
Let's make the tallest sandwich anyone's ever seen.
And that's what they do and that's where the man's
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

Cemetery Nights, pp. 6-7
     Viking Penguin, New York (1987)

Dobyns: This poem has references to earlier political strife.

(3) IN A ROW (web)

The mailman handing me a letter,
he paid a little. My daughter's

third grade teacher, the electrician
putting a light over my back door:

they paid as well. The woman at the bank
who cashes my check. She paid a part of it.

The typist in my office, the janitor
sweeping the floor— they paid some too.

The movie star paid for it. The nurse,
the nun, the saint, they all paid for it—

a photograph from Central America,
six children lying neatly in a row.

One day I was teaching or I sold
a book review or I gave a lecture

and some of the money came to me
and some rolled off into the world,

but it was still my money, the result
of my labor, each coin still had my name

printed across it, and I went on living,
passing my days in a box with a tight lid.

                    *        *        *

But elsewhere, skulking through tall grass,
a dozen men approached a village. It was hot;

the men made no noise. See that one's cap,
see the button on that other man's shirt,

hear the click of the cartridge as it slides
into its chamber, see the handkerchief

which that man uses to wipe his brow—
I paid for that one, that one belongs to me.

Body Traffic, pp. 51-52
     Viking Penguin, New York (1990)

(4) TENDERLY (web)

It's not a fancy restaurant, nor is it
a dump and it's packed this Saturday night
when suddenly a man leaps onto his tabletop,
whips out his prick and begins sawing at it

with a butter knife. I can't stand it
anymore! he shouts. The waiters grab him
before he draws blood and hustle him
out the back. Soon the other diners return

to their fillets and slices of duck. How
peculiar, each, in some fashion, articulates.
Consider how the world implants a picture
in our brains. Maybe thirty people watched

this nut attack him member with a dull knife
and for each, forever after, the image pops up
a thousand times. I once saw the oddest thing—
how often does each announce this fact?

In the distant future, several at death's door
once more recollect this guy hacking at himself
and die shaking their heads. So they are linked
as a family is linked— through a single portrait.

The man's wobbly perch on the white tablecloth
his open pants and strangled red chunk of flesh
become for each a symbol of having had precisely
enough, of slipping over the edge, of being whipped

about the chops by the finicky world, and of reacting
with a rash mutiny against the tyranny of desire.
As for the lunatic who was tossed out the back
and left to rethink his case among the trash cans,

who knows what happened to him? A short life,
most likely additional humiliation and defeat.
But the thirty patrons wish him well. They all
have burdens to shoulder in this world and whenever

one feels the strap begin to slip, he or she thinks
of the nut dancing with his dick on the tabletop
and trudges on. At least life has spared me this,
they think.— And one, a retired banker, represents

the rest when he hopes against hope that the lunatic
is parked on a topless foreign beach with a beauty
clasped in his loving arms, breathing heavily, Oh,
darling, touch me there, tenderly, one more time!

Ploughshares (Winter 1993/1994), pp. 25-26
     Velocities: New & Selected Poems 1966-1992, p. 11
     Viking Penguin Books, New York (1994)


Like a dream, when one
becomes conscious of it
becomes a confusion, so her name
slipped between the vacancies.

As little more than a child
I hurried among a phalanx
of rowdy boys across a dance floor—
such a cluttering of black shoes.

Before us sat a row of girls
in pastel dresses waiting.
One sat to the right. I uttered
some clumsy grouping of sounds.

She glanced up to where I stood
and the brightness of her eyes
made small explosions within me.
That's all that's left.

I imagine music, an evening,
a complete story, but truly
there is only her smile and my response—
warm fingerprints crowding my chest.

A single look like an inch of canvas
cut from a painting: the shy complicity,
the expectation of pleasure, the eager
pushing forward into the mystery.

Maybe I was fourteen. Pressed
to the windows, night blossomed
in the alleyways and our futures
rushed off like shafts of light.

My hand against the small of a back,
the feel of a dress, that touch
of the starched fabric, its damp warmth—
was that her or some other girl?

Scattered fragments, scattered faces—
the way a breeze at morning
disperses mist across a pond,
so the letters of her name

return to the alphabet. Her eyes,
were they gray? How can we not love
this world for what it gives us? How
can we not hate it for what it takes away?

Ploughshares (Winter 1993/1994), pp. 23-24
     Velocities: New & Selected Poems 1966-1992 (1994), p. 24
     anthologized in Patrice Vecchione's The Body Eclectic (2002), p. 63

(6) YELLOW BEAK (web)

A man owns a green parrot with a yellow beak
that he carries on his shoulder each day to work.
He runs a pet shop and the parrot is his trademark.

Each morning the man winds his way from his bus
through the square, four or five blocks. There goes
the parrot, people say. Then at night, he comes back.

The man himself is nondescript— a little overweight,
thinning hair of no color at all. It's like the parrot owns
the man, not the reverse. Then one day the man dies.

He was old. It was bound to happen. At first people
feel mildly upset. The butcher thinks he has forgotten
a customer who owes him money. The baker thinks

he's catching a cold. Soon they get it right— the parrot
is gone. Time seems out of sorts, but sets itself straight
as people forget. Then years later the fellow who ran

the diner wakes from a dream where he saw the parrot
flying along all by itself, flapping by in the morning
and cruising back home at night. Those were the years

of the man's marriage, the start of his family, the years
when the muddle of his life began to work itself out;
and it's as if the parrot were at the root of it all, linking

the days like pearls on a string. Foolish of course, but
do you see how it might happen? We wake at night
and recall an event that seems to define a fixed period

of time, perhaps the memory of a beat-up bike we had
as a kid, or a particular chair where we sat and laughed
with friends; a house, a book, a piece of music, even

a green parrot winding its way through city streets.
And do you see that bubble of air balanced at the tip
of its yellow beak? That's the time in which we lived.

Mystery, So Long, p. 7
     Penguin Books, New York (2005)


The hot tip of a spent match accidentally
pokes against the boy's soft scrotum. Ouch!
He had been trying to light his farts, a trick
he has yet to master, and now he is running

out of gas. At first he had twisted around
from the side but couldn't manage the reach,
then he dove down as if touching his toes
to take a swipe from underneath which led

to the sizzling attack on his balls, still hairless
and petit. At last he stretches out on his back
on the bedroom floor. He is naked except for
a Tigers T-shirt and crusty pair of gym socks.

He kicks his legs toward the ceiling, then back
above his head as he directs thee flaring match.
In terms of care and concentration, he could be
a rocket engineer as he gropes toward blast off

and transformation into a living flamethrower,
a useful gift when pursued down the block
by the local bully who he now hopes to reduce
to a greasy smudge on the cracked sidewalk.

His little brother's shout disrupts his glad thoughts:
Mom! Junior's being dirty again! Framed between
his upraised legs, the boy sees his mother blossom
in the doorway with an expression of disgust before

the yelling, the snuffed match and hasty yanking
of his body back onto his feet anto into his shorts,
actions attended by ever more meager explanations
and his brother's sarcastic remark. Later stripped

of his matches and confined to his room, the boy
deconstructs his mother's reproachful look,
the same, he thinks, as she gives their old hound
when he's caught snacking in the cat box, her quick

censure of the dog's surrender to his lower nature;
and though the boy knows he'll be pardoned, his mother's
discovery will form from now on a dark pane of glass,
tinting all her future study of her son. No use detailing

the benefits gained from hurling a fiery discharge
of methane at random pursuers; his mother inhabits
another reality, one less wondrous, where amazing
effects from ho-hum causes are scarce and appear

in black and white. Lessons like these, the boy thinks,
lead one to forgo careers in circuses and seek out
jobs in banks. They pave the ever-constricting path
toward adulthood, while the portrait of upraised ass

and flaming match will possess in family memory
the permanence of a framed Picasso above the mantel.
Such are time's hard truths softened only by the soon
to be savored delight of beating bis brother to a pulp.

Mystery, So Long, pp. 20-21
     Penguin Books, New York (2005)

Dobyns: There was a friend of [Federico García] Lorca, poet Rafael Alberti [1902-1999],
who along with Salvador Dalí made a machine with fart and strings [Dali & Art of Farting].


With a door shut, the child sat...
One of my stepson in the third grade...
Better call halt right now...
that time in a closet...
when he crawled in...
Want it wisdom.

— "New Poem" (?) (2011)


The man took the wrong fork in the road
on their way to a friend's house...
till it seemed they were sitting in different cars...
The woods were so thick...
They didn't speak to each other...
They recalled remarks at their wedding...
Who is the monster I married...
they're thinking of divorce...
but once they found their way,
they forgot their conflict...
he tells her how beautiful she looked
as beautiful as the stars are tonight.

— "New Poem" (?) (2011)

Dobyns: The poet Hayden Carruth [1921-2008] died at 87 over two years ago [obituary]. He taught at Syracuse University and is a friend of mine and Tobias Wolff. Visited him at the hospital when he was dying. Carruth laughed and was humorous even at the end.

(10) LAUGH

What he wished was to flush his ashes down
the lady room's toilet so they turned
into a glutinous mass...
so they'll have to clean it up
like Hercules' Augean Stables...

His last days at Utica's St. Luke Hospital
was full of laughter..

Save one to earn your final passage...

— "New Poem" (?) (2011)

(11) TURD

The only time I hit a boy
was in the fifth grade 50 years ago.
I'd forgotten what it was about.
It was at Clear Lake Camp.
This was 1951.
We both began to cry.
Later the camp leader gathered
all of us together. I was sure
that the boy complained about me
and that I would be punished.
But it was about another matter...
Someone left a turd six inches long
in the showers. Shit, black banana—
none of this was said. One bad boy's
bowel movement. There were 50 boys there.

I was looking for horror
in the dictionary not knowing
it began with "W"
had to sacrifice one of my own...

— "New Poem" (?) (2011)


The mourning doves are back earlier this year
with their call of patient lamentation, flying up
from the Carolinas after scarely three months
away. My mother always disliked them, although
she knew the names of only a few birds: sparrows,
robins, cardinals, crows. Yet the mourning dove
she heard before the rest and it brought to mind
those friends and family members she had loved
and who had died and, clearly, as she got older,
that number got bigger so the dove's call became
a greater burden, especially after my father's death.
She would bend her head to hear the sound and then
shake her head to push it away. As for the bird itself,
only the male has a call and as one might suspect
it has to do with sex; and since the birds produce
up to six broods a season that's a lot of lamentation.
Now when I hear a dove, it's as if I hear my mother's
grief, which then calls back my own, although it's been
ten years since her death. My mother taught history
and liked its odd details, as when Peter the Hermit
led a crusade to Jerusalem and for good luck hundreds
of his followers each plucked a hair from his burro
until the beast was nearly bald. Others drank Peter's
bathwater just to make sure the good luck stuck,
which it didn't since most were soon slaughtered
by the Turks. Back then fake prophets were as thick
as leaves on an oak, as they had visions, preached
salvation, and urged their followers to kill the Jews
to ensure redemption. In time they would be hanged
or burned at the stake; then a new prophet would
arrive in town and new visions would get people
marching again, eager victims of bogus information
and ruthless ignorance. I would hope that ignorance
had lessened in a thousand years, but many Americans
still think evolution is an atheist plot and the earth
is six thousand years old— Jonestown, the Rapture
Index, a senator calling global warming "the greatest
hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
What I like about birds is they lead simple lives,
digging up worms and showing off their songs.
Perhaps one robin is more ignorant than the next,
but how could you tell? I have a CD of birdcalls,
and when I played it, the cat hurried into the room
with a hopeful expression, but then he caught on
and gave me a look that ssid, You got me again,
asshole. Like the time I made him elevate four feet
off the floor by giving my crow call a sharp toot right
behind his back. Mourning doves divvy up the work:
the male sits on the eggs in the morning and afternoon,
the female takes evening and night. At first they feed
their squabs pigeon milk or crop milk— old cells shed
from the crop wall and whooped up for the little ones.
It looks like yellow cottage cheese but is said to be tasty.
But listen, mourning doves alwasys know what to do
and they repeat it year after year, while we tend to be
erratic. The trouble with having a mind that includes
an imagination, a sense of possibility, and a flexible
grasp of cause and effect is it it can lead to astonishing
pinnacles of human achievement and incredible lows,
like the woman who found the Virgin Mary in a grilled
cheese sandwich, saying: "I went to take a bite and saw
this lady looking back." Ten years later she sold it
for twenty-eight thousand bucks to an online casino
that wants to take the sandwich on a world tour. This
is not uncommon. A couple in Nebraska have a pretzel
showing the Virgin holding the baby Jesus; a fellow
in Nashville displayed a cinnamon bun with the face
of Mother Teresa and a woman in L.A. found the face
of Jesus on the furry ass of a terrier mix named Angus.
Birds don't act like this. Lacking a sense of the possible
they are protected from an overreaching imagination.
Today in the yard birds were making springtime noises,
although it's only the end of February. Mourning doves
make sloppy nests and often put their sticks in some
inappropriate spot. They even build nests on the ground
or sneak their eggsinto the better nests of other birds,
but, having done this almost forever, it's hard to call it
ignorance. It can't be compared to praying to the tuft
of fur on a terrier's ass. A friend claims that government,
mostly the right wing, has worked for years to dumb
down the population by cutting the quality of education
and reducing people's ability to tell the difference
between certainty, probability, possibility, and bullshit.
They do this by cutting funds for classes that teach
history and the arts, which decrease a sense of cause
and effect, so people grow more disposed to speeches
fobbing off the feasible or mistaken for the probable
or certain. And why the arts? Because they expand
a sense of what's possible. In fact, I think my friend
is right. It's easy for a government to convince voters
that to invest money in better schools is a bad idea,
just as salesmen can sell a gizmo to wash my floors,
groom a dog, and brush my teeth all at the same time.
Maybe I'm straying from what's said to be said in a poem,
but where does such an opinion come from? Probably
from poor schools and the limitations that mediocrity
puts on possibility, making up rules that seem right
because they've been repeated till one wants to puke.
But don't think I don't like the cat. Inside, he's a pal,
but outside he hunts the birds, so at times I shy a stone
in his direction and duck so he'll blame it on the hand
of God. Although my mother disliked mourning doves,
she disliked cats even worse, because they like to eat
the mourning doves. If she found a cat in the yard
she would hurry out and shout, Shoo! But yesterday
my cat caught a mourning dove, maybe an ignorant one,
and again I thought of my mother. At times I wonder
what she would have said of our current administration
and praying to a cinnamon bun. Not that I imagine
her indignation, but I miss our conversations. She had
energetic political beliefs of the kind the right wing
calls liberal and liked to send off letters to the paper
about some politician's misreading of the Constitution.
I don't know, maybe she's lucky not knowing about
the holy grilled cheese sandwich and cinnamon bun.
Sorry, sorry, I'm getting off the subject again, being
guilty of writing about politics and furry terrier butts
when, really, that's not my intention. This is an elegy.

Winter's Journey (2010), pp. 18-22
     Cooper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA

(13) RHINOCEROS (web)

Snow in the early morning, then sleet by dawn,
switching to steady rain by eight. I like to see
the weather flexing its muscles. Now the wind
is picking up from the north, lashing the rain
into a radical slant. There's not a bird in sight.
Today is Valentine's Day, named for a saint
who most likely didn't exist. Like love itself,
perhaps, here today, gone tomorrow. Earlier
this morning I drove to the florist as cars slid
across the ice as elegantly as Olympic skaters.
Soon I came back with two cyclamens, their heart-
shaped leaves marking them as a Valentine gift:
purple for my daughter, bright red for my wife.
Nothing else today has such color, although
I see a wide variety of gray. My wife arrived
in this country on Valentine's Day twenty-three
years ago. Ten months later our daughter was born.
I wish I could say that it has always been easy,
but the good times have offset the bad by maybe
ten to one. And that's pretty good, right? I mean,
that's maybe as good as it gets. And if someone
does a little better, I don't want to hear about it.
At least I've never felt regret, while each time
she crosses my line of sight feels like a gift, and,
sure, there are other pleasures, though I'd prefer
not to reveal too much. What are those animals
that live all by themselves and come out only
to have sex? Rhinos, for example. Collectively
they're called a crash of rhinos, which doesn't
sound reassuring. So would it surprise anybody
that rhinos are not known for having friends?
But at times I think I should have lived like that,
hunkered down in my rhino-den and feeling sullen
as I sharpened my horn on a rock, but, believe me,
it wouldn't have meant happiness or even pleasure,
just teeth-clenched endurance. And if I did it,
what would be the point? But I'm lying to myself.
I have no wish to be a rhino. Where does such self-
deception come from? Yet when I see my wife
sitting across the room and it feels like a gift,
part of me thinks I should hurry to my rhino den
and chomp on some moldy grass. Megafauna
is what they are called and odd-toed ungulates.
Can you imagine as a kid telling your Aunt Betty
when she asked about your future, I want to grow up
to become a megafauna? But the real reason I never
told Aunt Betty was cowardice. I lacked the courage
to face her stricken disappointment or lively scorn.
Early rhinos weighed twelve tons, twice the weight
of elephants, and we should be glad they all became
extinct. Even these days in India and Nepal rhinos
kill more people than tigers and leopards combined.
Not only do rhinos feel sullen, they feel obviously
aggrieved. What the baby rhino hoped for and what
it got left it in a permanent bad mood. A two-hour-old
baby rhino I saw once looked like a leather hassock.
It's a big leap from hassock to odd-toed ungulate.
Why I would tell Aunt Betty I wanted to be a rhino
isn't clear to me. I mean, it seems like something
at the edge of psychosis. But this morning driving
to the florist and watching the cars skid around,
I saw that being a rhino was like being an SUV
and what I'd been seeking was a sense of safety,
which, when looked at logically, might make sense
but my choice of animal was silly, and it wasn't just
safety that I wanted but a sense of self-sufficiency,
like being your own Swiss Army knife, but bigger.
But could I tell my wife I had doubts about shared
domesticity on account of my wish to be a SUV,
like telling her I wanted a sex-change, but worse?
And it's not even true, I don't want to be a SUV,
but, no matter how much I love her, a nervous voice
still nags in my ear: You'd be better off as a SUV,
or best of all a rhino, one of those twelve-ton ones
nobody would mess with. The root of this desire
is a total mystery to me. I don't really like rhinos.
I don't have a collection of rhino figurines or keep
their pictures on my dresser or display them proudly
on T-shirts as people do with dogs, bears and pigs.
Nevertheless the nervous voice tries to convince me
this is wisdom; I mean, not even the nervous voice
likes rhinos, it's just, to his mind, a best case scenario.
And even if tempted by SUV's, he prefers rhinos more,
since they can live about fifty years and don't make
much noise other than stamping their three-toed feet.
All sorts of people treat their foibles with affection,
as they might treat a dim-witted child with affection.
Oh, I always mix ice cream, catsup and beer, they say,
with a laugh that invites you to laugh along as well.
But you can't do that if you want to be a rhino. Sorry,
I must stop saying that; I've really no wish to be a rhino.
You know how it can happen when your brain knows
one thing and another part of your body thinks it knows
something else, perhaps it's in the stomach or spleen,
or in one of those glands? Like my urge to be a rhino
is caused by my endocrine glands or exocrine glands,
while my brain tries to keep me on a safer and more
sensible course. But if I were to tell this to my wife
as the reason why I sometimes seem distant or why
I have a fear of being happy, she'd give me the look
people make before they spit. And she's a scientist,
she speaks mathematics like Finns speak Finnish.
So it would be tough to convince her. Yet what I call
feeling distant or a worry of being happy turns into
the belief that I should hunker down in a rhino den.
I mean, the safer I feel, the more vulnerable I feel,
which is exactly how I feel when I use a chainsaw.
Some things you should never tell another person,
like turning to a stranger in a bar and confessing
you like to eat cow pies, it's just a bad idea. Even
if you confessed it to a priest in the confessional,
you'd regret it. Even if he didn't tell anyone else,
one day you'd catch him looking at you strangely.
A desire to be a rhino in a rhino den is like that,
but I swear I've no such wish, it's just a hankering
caused by a rogue gland, a hankering that makes
every other part of my body shout out, No! No!
But who would believe me? A fear of being happy,
a wish for an unattainable self-sufficiency, a fear
of vulnerability, which leads to isolation and being
short on trust. You see, I've already said too much.
By now it's nearly dark. The sun sets at five fifteen,
but on a gray day like this it hurries to get a head start
and by four o'clock it's grown so dark I can't tell
whether it's raining or what the wind is doing. Neither
the dog nor cat want to go out. And it's Valentine's
Day and I've given my wife flowers and chocolates
and told her I loved her and now I'm telling her
that part of me, a very small part, almost a smidgen,
wants to be a rhino hunkered down in a rhino den,
but why that should be the case, I just don't know.

Winter's Journey (2010), pp. 13-17
     Cooper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA

Dobyns: That's it. (Dobyns finished reading at 9:03 pm)
Audience: One more! (Dobyns reads "Tomatoes", his 14th poem,
                  ending at 9:09 pm to a spirited ovation at Cubberley.)

(14) TOMATOES (web)

A woman travels to Brazil for plastic
surgery and a face-lift. She is sixty
and has the usual desire to stay pretty.
Once she is healed she takes her new face
out on the streets of Rio. A young man
with a gun wants her money. Bang, she's dead.
The body is shipped back to New York,
but in the morgue there is a mix-up. The son
is sent for. He is told that his mother
is one of these ten different women.
Each has been shot. Such is modern life.
He studies them all but can't find her.
With her new face, she has become a stranger.
Maybe it's this one, maybe it's that one.
He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?
He presses their hands to his cheek.
Which ones consoled him? He even tries
climbing into their laps to see which
feels more familiar but the coroner stops him.
Well, says the coroner, which is your mother?
They all are, says the young man, let me
take them as a package. The coroner hesitates,
then agrees. Actually it solves a lot of problems.
The young man has the ten women shipped home,
then cremates them all together. You've seen
how some people have a little urn on the mantle?
This man has a huge silver garbage can.
In the spring, he drags the garbage can
out to the garden and begins working the teeth,
the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.
Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.
They grow straight from seed, so fast and big
that the young man is amazed. He takes the first
ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,
he sees his mother's breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries, and flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation, think of his ravenous kisses.

Cemetery Nights, pp. 4-5
     Viking Penguin, New York (1987)

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