I’ve had the good fortune to exchange poems via email with Stu, and I can tell you he’s a great editor, as well as an accomplished writer. He is a teacher in Harrogate, and has published a collection, The Basics (Redbeck Press), which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. He has a practice-based PhD in poetry from Leeds University, and is a member of the York Stanza group. Stu’s poems have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Rialto and The North, and in 2014 he won the inaugural Poetry Business Yorkshire Prize. It’s also nice to be able to tag onto the end of this biography that we both have poems in the latest edition of Brittle Star (issue 36). How’s that for a partnership?
In backs of cars, children’s heads turn.
He doesn’t break sweat crossing the park,
flits across c.c.t.v. passing the Spar,
laps up the bypass mapping the stars.
He grows solid out of a blur of mist,
past the first toddler on the swings,
clocked by smokers outside a pub,
overtaken by the last flickering train.
That’s him—clues in fresh snow,
slaloming clumps of daffodils, leaning
into the rain. He cuts the heat haze
like water, running down the days.
Sinew in lycra, high-vis vest,
he sprints through Lingerie in the store,
jogs the reference section of the library,
leaves his footprints along the shore.
Is his body hydraulic, his blood digital?
What is coiled inside his heart,
what throws him out on a pig of a night,
endorphins telling him it doesn’t hurt?
Stephen Dobyns, Common Carnage
I was at a workshop when the tutor showed the group the poem ‘Uprising,’ a poem full of exaggeration and imperatives that instructs us to get the “formaldehyde out of our veins,” and to stop being “the property of our property.” Envy, lechery and a host of bad habits are personified and romp through the poem.
I like Dobyns’ collection as it is bold, adventurous and sometimes surreal. Like some American poets, he engages in long, sometimes seemingly tangential reflections upon his subject matter: for instance, a whole stanza is devoted to a boy’s artificial leg in the poem ‘Education.’ Generally, the poems are long and allow for the latitude to look at various aspects of a particular subject. Some poems like ‘Hans Ironfoot et al, I felt were too long and they revisited the same elements of the subject but only in slightly different ways. His content ranges from the cultural(the typical conventions of fairy tales) to the personal (desire, lust, bullying when at school),to the more aesthetic (the nature of beauty and how individuals engage with it). Perhaps unlike the English aesthetic, he is sometimes happy to step into the poems as an authorial presence and directly discuss abstracts; he tells and discusses here rather than shows.
Here are a few more specific comments about particular poems. ‘Fade Out’ takes a broad, cross section of life: how older men cope with old age. His boldness and direct authorial comment is apparent in such lines as, “I love their mixture of impatience and humility.” Like all good writers, he has the eye for the specifics: the men sit on rickety chairs with foam rubber pushing from the cushions, they have braided rugs, they read “an old ‘Sports Illustrated,’ maybe a ‘Playboy’.” He assumes their vocabulary and point of view with “there’s nothing nice/in their futures,” something that other writers may avoid. The poem ends with acceptance on behalf of the old men who just have a last cigarette before “the door snaps shut.” “Snaps” has some good overtones of the abruptness and force of their demise, symbolically it works well.
‘Nocturnal Obstruction’ deals with insomnia and the thoughts and dreams that visit you in the early hours. The outside world threatens with its ghostly inhabitants, its zombies, one might say today, who stalk the streets, “faces of cobweb, faces/of crushed leaves.” The poem then develops in an unexpected way with the next day being personified. Day, an attractive, female presence, walks arm in arm with the narrator; the narrator has a little cane and Day has a harmonica. There are bluebirds, rainbows, “the paraphernalia of dreams.” However, there is no happy ending; Dobyns questions our acceptance of the trite, the comfortable cushion to rest one’s head on; what might be the reality is “maybe a chasm,” the final words of the poem. Such a sentiment ties in suitably with the painting by George Grosz on the cover titled ‘Eclipse of the Sun.’ Here violence and death lurk below the surface; the well-dressed of high society are about to slip into the abyss. Though I like the tentative nature of the end of Dobyns’ poem, I would have liked the “chasm” to have been contextualized, justified, illustrated, rather than quickly asserted.
‘Cold Marble’ deals with the connection between red poppies and the beauty of women; indeed, it examines the influence of beauty on the beautiful. It begins with the traditional flower which is soon ruined by the elements; the flower is transitory and subject to destructive, larger forces beyond its control. The poem then shifts into beauty’s human manifestation. I think Dobyns captures that abstract and aesthetic quality with such concrete insights as beauty being like a person who walks ahead of the person themselves: Beauty is “something which/entered the room before they themselves/seemed to enter.” In meditating on this subject, he goes on to say beauty is “like finding one’s best friend/in the arms of an enemy.” Such perspectives are more thoughtful than Dobyns’ pronouncements: women “hate/how their beauty denies them a life.” As many poets do in structuring their poems, the poppies return at the end of them but in a new light; though destroyed and sprawled in the dirt, they seem “relaxed…in their destruction.” In a similar way, the old woman at the end of the poem, happy in her wrinkled appearance, remarks with a more certain truth and some humour, “Once this face…could break a man’s legs.” The complexity of perspective in this poem is thoughtful and engaging; additionally, it questions the conventional view of how we should regard beauty.
For me, I liked this collection as it moved the reader into new and unexpected areas of experience. The arc, the movement of ideas was refreshing at times. Dobyns has the confidence to spend time and give space to situations, characters, incidents that surprise. These are not small, tightly controlled poems absent of narrators; they are urban, gritty, honest and confronting.