I live over by Kenwood Elementary School…and steal their wireless Internet signal from time to time…somewhat by accident…Anyway, they’ve been doing a lot of construction on the school this summer. Right now they’re working on replacing the windows, I think, and there’s a big yellow cherry picker that goes up and down the side of the building, and a guy who takes out the old frames and puts in the new ones and then, I imagine, eventually washes the panes.
I’ve been watching this for a few days now, and then read this poem by Stephen Dunn, from his Pulitzer-winning collection Different Hours, which shares the same central image. Buy it here. His work, to my mind, is filled with big themes, and tempered descriptions of them. Like all fantastic poets, he has a knack for pointing out those things we all know about, but don’t necessarily notice until someone explains how amazing they are. Different Hours largely has a somber tone to it, which Dunn explains, somewhat coyly, is the result of his being an optimist (because he always expects good things to happen, he’s often let down).
Better than I’m able to set a background for the poem, perhaps the poet himself, will explain a bit about his work.
The following is taken from an interview with Guernica:
Dunn: But the world is always somewhat vicious. I take that as a given, but at various times in various circumstances that fact will be no more than a shadow or an echo behind the poem. Other times it will be more manifest. I try to write myself into articulations of half-felt, half-known feelings, without program. I’m always working toward getting my world and, hopefully, the world outside of me into a version that makes sense of it. Viciousness requires the same precision as love does.
And this is from an interview with Nightsun, Frostburg State University’s litmag.
Dunn: The notion of restraint and extravagance has interested me for a while, I think especially because I tend to be someone who is temperamentally restrained. The great danger for somebody like me is that he might employ restraint out of habit, as opposed to employing it to heighten effects. I think restraint matters when it is harnessing something of size, something a little uncontrollable, something wild. I use the example of Fred Astaire, who seemed to me and to everybody, always under control. He was really using his skill to regulate emotion and to keep out the extra gestures that make art feel false.
I like the poets of extravagance too. I love Whitman, I love Ginsberg’s "Howl," but I’m just not that kind of expansive poet.
So here it is:
"Men in the Sky"
Leaves are falling as the telephone men
ascend to the tops of poles.
They are riding a magic long-armed
machine. No need anymore to climb.
To speak through wires is as natural now
as falling leaves, natural as men in the sky.
The telephone men in the cupped palm
of the long arm are reducing the static,
helping me reach far out of town.
They are beautiful in their hard orange
plumage. Finches and cardinals: mere birds
by comparison, unchangeable, nervous.
It’s a shame the men must come down.
I stood next to them at the 7-Eleven
at lunch break, heard them order ham
and cheese on a hard roll, Dr. pepper.
I saw them get out of their trucks
and spit. Now the leaves graze
their shoulders suddenly more golden
for having touched them. My phone
is ringing. It’s one of the telephone men,
the highest, the one with a sufficiency
of tools around his waist, calling to see
if everything’s all right. Everything isn’t.