Stephen Dobyns: Finding the Short Story in the Poetry of a Novelist

In 2010, Stephen Dobyns, a poet and novelist from Rhode Island, released a poetry collection which elevated his familiar prosy narratives to a new level. Winter’s Journey, not yet published in the UK, consists of a Dobyns ‘living in a country that has become an embarrassment’, and while he sits in his truck or walks his dog on the beach in winter he feels ‘guilty pursuing the usual/ material when the world hovers at the brink of collapse’. The poems are few, and a few pages long, and are rants rather than stories but the elements of the short-story are echoed in each poem. The first dozen lines or so of the majority of these poems certainly have more in common with stories than they do poems. The literary-anomalous ingenuity of Dobyns means that, while his poetry in general is bursting with so many short-story elements, there is no confusion regarding definition, just so long as the reader is really paying attention. Surprisingly for a writer who can conjure up cunning and artistic story-like poems at will, Dobyns has only published one collection of short stories (Eating Naked) compared to over a dozen poetry collections and twenty novels.

With the possible exception of his first and second collection, readers will find more extravagant tales, resplendent and sinister, in Doybns’ earlier work, from a Creative Writing class feasting on Pablo Neruda (a poem which resourcefully manages to make Neruda more like an appetising dessert rather than a human being) to a father who lets his young daughter assist him while he shaves but can’t help but watch her and let her vulnerability get to him; the latter, of course, less extravagant, but so incredibly moving and evocative the reader will always remember the daughter’s dabbing of the shaving cream, the way she sniffs it, blows it gently, her fascination of something so simple, and this memorable simplicity is commonly associated with the short story.

Cemetery Nights was published in the ’80s (early ’90s in the UK). It grabbed the short-story by the throat and made poems out of cautionary tales and bizarre anecdotes. In this collection the reader is taken to a world where a chicken eaten long ago pops back from the spiritual to the earthly plain, and a man with a talking dog compromise with their individual philosophical take on life. The majority of readers will finish these poems thinking ‘How is this poetry? This is more like prose’ even if they are still smiling while they voice their doubt. But the work going on behind-the-scenes should not be underestimated. All fans of Dobyns will have their favourite Dobyns era but the latter poem, ‘How to Like It’, is arguably Dobyns at his eclectic best and a great place to start for new readers, ending with the disenchanted protagonist wondering ‘How is it possible to want so many things/ and still want nothing.’:

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.

This mix of comedy and philosophy adds the crucial efficiency and adhesiveness to the hard-to-categorise poems. Elsewhere in the same collection, Dobyns ponders God and the Creation and how the dead might spend their nights in the cemetery of the collection’s title.

Dobyns got sillier with Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, an absurd collection whose humour is so dark, so vulgar, yet so true, it will leave you in stitches, and thanks to the book’s animation and perceptible mind’s eye you will be able to feel the stitches on your stomach and unpick them with your fingers. The poems revolve around Heart — Blood-pumping organ, Romantic and disconsolate truth-seeker of the everyday. Following Heart trailing the telltale haze of a dragon with old fenders and a rented horse, or dragging a wagon weighed down with an alp of packing crates and steamer trunks packed with the burdens of his friends, is poetry escapism at its very best, helped not just by a supercharged imagination but also a refreshing tidiness to the poet’s characteristic lengthy lines.

One of the collections to follow this was The Porcupine’s Kisses, a collection (of barbed maxims and snappy one-liners) so hard to define that it will largely disappoint fans of (Dobyns’) poetry and fans of (Dobyns’) prose. But Winter’s Journey is proof enough that there is life in the prolific, yet reassuringly iterative, old dog yet.

Last year, a new poem from Dobyns featured in The New Yorker. Ironically more accomplished physically than his traditional trademark poems, more akin to the work, overall, in Body Traffic and Common Carnage, the poem, ‘Determination’, focuses on a novelist getting down that very first word. In one sentence spanning six quatrains, he manages to conjure up the superstitious nature of novelists, and, to a lesser extent, poets, while disturbing the comic element by adding the insecurities of a writer, the way we like to use impressive desks and writing material to make ourselves look more important or more professional. In his memoir of the craft of writing, On Writing, Stephen King confesses to his own version during a drunk side of his writing career, where he would write in a spacious study dominated by a monstrosity of a desk. In an interview accompanying the poem, Dobyns said:


My poems always begin with a metaphor, but my way into the metaphor may be a word, an image, even a sound. And I rarely know the nature of the metaphor when I begin to write, but there is an attentiveness that a writer develops, a sudden alertness that is much like the feel of a fish brushing against a hook.


With old age comes realism for Stephen Dobyns. Nearing the end of Winter’s Journey, in the poem ‘Spring’, amid the gloominess of a man with little in his heart but room for complaint, the brightness igniting his horizon has no circus colourings and no special effects but consists of an image, a moment, so real and so recognisable it has hurt, tenderness and life bubbling inside its ordinariness:


Out at the lighthouse a man with a yellow slicker

and a boy in a red jacket walk along the rocks

as I watch from my truck. The boy is about six —

father and son with their backs to me, hand in hand

and walking slowly, not talking — a scene repeated

maybe a trillion times since time began.


Where there’s a twist, there’s a story, but in some cases the twist will always be a reliable and painful consistency, an incessant repetition.