Archival Features, First Series, Poems, PoNW Prize & Award Winners

Stephen Dunn: Five Early Poems

Periodically, we’ll take a tour of the
Poetry Northwest archives, spotlighting vital poems and writers from the magazine’s fifty-plus year history.  Previous entries in the series can be found here.  This edition features early work from the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn, a frequent contributor to the magazine during the seventies, eighties and beyond. Here are five poems as they originally appeared in Poetry Northwest, with the poet’s reflection on what these pieces mean to him now.

He walks the high wire in his sleep.

Before I begin to say anything about these poems that appeared in Poetry Northwest many years ago, a few dating back to 1969, I want to thank David Wagoner for recognizing a quality in them worthy of publication. He was the first editor of an important magazine to regularly publish my work, and therefore helped develop in me a confidence that I might have a little something on which to build.

It may not be possible, but I’m going to try to look at these poems as if they were written by someone else. “Affirmation” is amazingly free of the surrealistic dazzle of the period, seems to have a voice that’s both direct and imagistic, and, though small in ambition, has a curious and somewhat surprising connection to its title. And “Cross Country Runners” has, for me, a pleasing sense of narrative tact, though the “Sir” feels like an affectation, a move by a writer who otherwise doesn’t know how to move his poem forward.

Of the three poems that won the Theodore Roethke Prize, I’m most fond of “The Man who Never Loses his Balance.” All three poems exhibit an imagination, but “The Man…” exhibits it in a way that seems to serve a seriousness that leads to a discovery or two about risk taking in poems and, by extension, in life. The inventiveness in “The Gambler at Home” and especially in “The Magician’s Dream” seems, by comparison, cranked up, poems only of gestures toward their subject. They may exhibit some talent, but lack a certain depth. If I were an editor, I think I would have seen in them a poet-in-the-making, someone with facility and a certain flare, but who didn’t yet know how to deepen his concerns.

In addition to an imagination at work, I imagine that David saw in these poems the beginnings of a voice. And I must say how proud I was to win the Roethke prize. He (Roethke) was then, and remains among my two or three favorite American poets. And David, a fine poet himself, a very important advocate by virtue of his choices, which I’d like to think had nothing to do with advocacy but more with an aesthetic openness and the desire to put out a better than respectable journal.

– Stephen Dunn


Cross-Country Runners

Sir, we came to your forest dressed
in white with our pure speed held back
for the finish, came with only love
of the clock and the underfooting
and the other feet.

Sir, like whirlwind tourists of London,
Rome and Paris we came,
did not turn
to follow the possum down a side path
or our inclinations deeper
into the darkness.

Forgive us,
I swear the dazzling sense of things
more durable than ourselves
didn’t hit us
till we rested against a tree
near the gymnasium.


The young boys roll down the hill, laughing
like crickets. The grass submits
to them. They take its color
on their white backs. At the bottom,
enthralled with their bodies and their dizziness,
they look up at their mother
who has imagined they have just tumbled
from her womb
into a world less dark. She applauds.
They play dead
as stones, then suddenly burst into boys
once more, running
up that long slope
to where they began.
Beneath a tree, stretched out with my dog,
I spread apart the grass
and kiss the earth.

The Magician’s Dream

I pull this from nowhere, from
++out of the hips of roses,
++++from the scar

in the sky. It is this,
++what I’m holding, what you can’t see,
++++this lovely piece

of thisness, this body of wild claim
++I’d like you to care about.
++++Imagine this, for example.

Or imagine this; earthlight bottled
++in a factory near Newark and sold
++++to the stars.What I have here

is the commodity of our time, none

++of the above, that which always follows
++++simple A, B, C, like cruelty.

It is none of your business either.
++That’s why there’s a possibility
++++you’ll care about it, this shadow

wearing a cloak in a grey world, this
++self-cancelling mandrake root
++++that will not produce

a single birth. I hold it up to you now
++so that you won’t see it.
++++Look, it’s gone

and all this time you haven’t left
++your seat. Confess, All you ever cared about
++++was me.

The Man Who Never Loses His Balance

He walks the high wire in his sleep.
The tent is blue, it is perpetual
afternoon. He is walking between
the open legs of his mother
and the grave. Always. The audience knows this
is out of their hands. The audience
is fathers whose kites are lost, children
who want to be terrified into joy.
He is so high above them, so capable
(with a single, calculated move)
of making them care for him
that he’s sick of the risks
he never really takes.
The tent is blue: Outside is a world
that is blue. Inside him
a blueness that could crack
like china if he ever hit bottom.
Every performance, deep down,
he tries one real plunge
off to the side, where the net ends.
But it never ends.

The Gambler At Home

Everyone’s asleep. The heat is off
for the time being. Horses run
the walls of his house, always
coming from behind. He pronounces
their names until they become pure
meaningless sound like a prayer
spoken since youth. His information
is inside. His needs are secrets
he can only share with crowds.
And now he feels it again
somewhere in his stomach—
that absence, growing palpable.
Ragged zeroes when he smokes.

How can his family know
when he says the unlit room
he means the moment before loss.
Or when he puts his arms around them
he’s thinking one less empty space.
It’s late and cold and part of him
knows the world is gorgeous
in its disregard, but cruel enough
to kiss you now and then.
That part of him would take the kiss
and run. Never bet again.
That’s a promise, he says, halfway to sleep.
In the morning he remembers
he knows a man
who knows a man.

Stephen Dunn is the author of sixteen books, including Different Hours (Norton, 2000), which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. His most recent book of poems is Here and Now (Norton, 2011).

“Cross-Country Runners” and “Affirmation” appeared originally in Poetry Northwest Winter 1969-70. The latter was published in Looking For Holes in the Ceiling (University of Massachusetts Press, 1974). “The Magician’s Dream,” “The Gambler at Home” and “The Man Who Never Loses His Balance” appeared originally in Poetry Northwest Autumn 1976, and won the magazine’s Theodore Roethke Prize in 1977.  All three were published in A Circus of Needs (CMU Press, 1978). “The Man Who Never Loses His Balance” was later included in New and Selected Poems 1974-1994 (Norton, 1994).

photo credit: jenny downing via photopin cc