Today begins a series on six poets who died in 2021. As every obituary fan knows, a death can be a wonderful introduction to a life. I had only heard of two of these poets, and had they not died, I would never come upon the rest.
That’s a self-centered thing to say—good these poets died so that I can meet them! Better to say, with a doleful look and a warm handshake, I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.
I begin with poet Stephen Dunn, who died last June on his birthday at age 82.
I Come Home Wanting To Touch Everyone
by Stephen Dunn
The dogs greet me, I descend
into their world of fur and tongues
and then my wife and I embrace
as if we’d just closed the door
in a motel, our two girls slip in
between us and we’re all saying
each other’s names and the dogs
Buster and Sundown are on their hind legs,
people-style, seeking more love.
I’ve come home wanting to touch
everyone, everything; usually I turn
the key and they’re all lost
in food or homework, even the dogs
are preoccupied with themselves,
I desire only to ease
back in, the mail, a drink,
but tonight the body-hungers have sent out
their long-range signals
or love itself has risen
from its squalor of neglect.
Everytime the kids turn their backs
I touch my wife’s breasts
and when she checks the dinner
the unfriendly cat on the dishwasher
wants to rub heads, starts to speak
with his little motor and violin–
everything, everyone is intelligible
in the language of touch,
and we sit down to dinner inarticulate
as blood, all difficulties postponed
because the weather is so good.
Now that we know COVID is rarely if ever transmitted through touching surfaces (which includes the human body, obviously), you’d think we’d be seeing the end of elbow-bumping and oversized drugstore displays of antiseptic products, like the end-cap in the picture above, where I left Stephen Dunn’s poem, “I Came Home Wanting to Touch Everyone.”
Unfortunately over the past two years we’ve conditioned ourselves to be afraid of touch. It’s understandable, and I’m not disparaging caution. When we don’t know who is vulnerable, we avoid physical contact, we distance, we wipe down, we wash hands like Lady MacBeth. It can be neurotic but it can also be love.
Still, we need to feel the loss, if only so we can reclaim touch in small ways now or celebrate it joyfully when the time is right. In early January I saw two friends I hadn’t seen in two years because of the pandemic. I worried that getting Omicron would postpone the dental surgery I had scheduled, so I asked my friends to meet outdoors. Outdoors on a cold winter night in Michigan. They obliged, bless them. And yet I hugged them. They must have wondered, what’s with the double standard—you make us freeze in the dark, but here you are, holding us close. I couldn’t help myself. I was so happy to see them, the need to embrace overwhelmed my vigilance.
We could only handle an hour of conversing in the cold, so we didn’t begin to cover all we had to talk about, but much was communicated, just being close to each other. As Dunn writes,
everything, everyone is intelligible
in the language of touch
Although the touch in “I Come Home” is mostly sexual touch, the way Dunn details his body-hungers with such verve and charm brings me cheek by jowl with the affectionate world I miss. Ah, affection, affection with friends and acquaintances, so powerful, elemental, inarticulate/as blood, in the language of the poem.
Stephen Dunn was born 1939 in New York City. His life up to age 26 seems an unlikely one for a poet. He went to Hofstra on a basketball scholarship where he earned the nickname “Radar” for the accuracy of his jump-shots. After graduating he played one season for a semi-professional men’s team and took a job as an ad man writing copy for Nabisco crackers.
Then he quit. He left for Spain, wrote a novel that he discarded, and at age 29 went to Syracuse to earn his MFA.
For most of his career he taught creative writing at Stockton College, but he also taught at Princeton, Columbia and University of Michigan. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Different Hours. In an apt coincidence, at the time of his death in 2021 he had published 21 books of poetry. The 22nd with be published posthumously in May of 2022.
Dunn was married for over 35 years to his first wife (presumably the woman in this poem) and had two children with her. His second wife is writer Barbara Hurd.
He suffered from Parkinsons and died on his birthday.
This obituary in New York Times gives a nice summary of his style and body of work. And here’s an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin.
It really points to how important even a hand to the shoulder of a friend is and has become a missed now a missed communication.
Loved this poem and your comments. Dunn taught at Bear River Writers Conference one year. Wonderful poet. Thanks!
Thanks for reading! I went to the Bear River conference one year….not the year Dunn went….that must have been great.