In those few precious seconds before impact I am certain time didn’t stop. Instead it staggered and stuttered and skipped a circle around me: I blink, and the cab driver is honking at someone on the road. I blink, and suddenly a 4×4 vehicle has slammed to my side. I blink, and both of my hands are on the dashboard. I blink, and we are in the middle of everything on a Friday afternoon.

I force myself to check for broken bones. HOW DO I KNOW IF ANYTHING IS BROKEN, a voice shouts inside my head. IT’S CHARACTERISED BY INTENSE PAIN, somebody else answered. I THINK YOU’RE IN SHOCK SO YOU WON’T FEEL ANYTHING, says another voice. YOUR WHOLE SOUL IS BROKEN TO BE HONEST, says a wound. Shut up, I whisper. I blink, and I look at my sisters outside the window, their mouths open, their hands flapping in the wind like small birds. I blink, and I recognise that I’m the only one left inside the cab. I try to push the door open, but it wouldn’t budge.

If we have stopped to buy bread, we would’ve missed this by a few seconds. If I have lingered any longer at the sparse poetry section at the bookstore, we would’ve taken another cab. If I haven’t called my father, we would’ve taken another route. I blink, and it’s a steady beat inside my head: if, if, if, if, if. I blink, and I realise that something is throbbing. I blink, and I look at my knee, wedged in an abnormal angle between the passenger seat and the door.

The average person blinks fifteen to twenty times a minute, according to the Smithsonian. My eye takes snapshots and in sixty seconds I’ve got fifteen to twenty images of an air freshener, a little tree swaying in the wind. The driver has left his door open. I blink, and there’s a man gesturing with his palms open. His lips moving, fifteen or twenty pieces falling into place. I blink, and the words register: there’s no driver in the other car.

I blink, and noise returns: the traffic is starting to build up behind us. Ah, I thought. That’s the weight that was missing. I never knew that sound could be so heavy. I blink, and I start to move my toes. I blink, and the engine of the other car started. I could hear the metal breathing a little, and yes, maybe that’s just my imagination. They pry the door open. I blink, and I’m stepping out. I blink, and suddenly I’m afraid that my legs have forgotten themselves. I blink, and I’m standing outside.

I try not to feel fragile. It’s just a swollen knee, after all.

I try not to think about the things I didn’t think about. They have all fallen into the cracks between the moment that my eyes opened and closed, opened and closed, opened and closed, opened and closed, opened and closed. That is the only place where time stopping to accommodate a flashback of your life is a miniscule possibility, after all.

In those few precious seconds before impact I am certain time didn’t stop. I am certain because the world doesn’t slow down, ever, for anyone. But wouldn’t it be nice if it did. Just for a second. Long enough to think, there are no words for this. Long enough to think, there is a word: your name, maybe. Long enough to think, will they remember me? Long enough to think, it is done. Long enough to think, is this all there is, after all? I blink, and the universe goes on. I blink, and the moment has passed me by.

Stephen Dunn

What starts things

are the accidents behind the eyes
touched off by, say, the missing cheekbone
of a woman who might have been beautiful

it is thinking about
your transplanted life-line going places
in someone else’s palm, or the suicidal games
your mind plays with the edge
of old wounds, or something
you couldn’t share with your lover

there are no endings

people die between birthdays and go on for years;
what stops things for a moment
are the words you’ve found for the last bit of light
you think there is

Working on my poems today. Writing letters. Looking up the ceiling. Left foot tapping along with Charlie Parker.

I am holding this close to my heart:

Here, as in the other poems, there is the question of forgiveness. I’m curious about where forgiveness falls in your treatment of your own poetry (the people in your poems, your sympathy for the speaker, your process as the author).

Interesting. I’ve just written a poem called “Forgiveness: A Colloquy.” Forgiveness is a subject that has long fascinated me, perhaps because how many times over the years I’ve needed to be forgiven, perhaps because of Dostoyevsky’s compelling notion that it’s harder to allow yourself to be forgiven than to forgive. In one case, you have to admit to yourself and the other that you’ve been awful. The forgiver, on the other hand, is left feeling good about himself, as the charitable do.

This, too:

Stephen Dunn

Finally, I gave up on obeisance,
and refused to welcome
either retribution or the tease

of sunny days. As for the can’t-be-
seen, the sum-of-all-details,
the One—oh, when it came

to salvation I was only sure
I needed to be spared
someone else’s version of it.

The small prayers I devised
had in them the hard sounds
of split and frost.

I wanted them to speak
as if it made sense to speak
to what isn’t there

in the beaconless dark.
I wanted them to startle
by how little they asked.

From Poetry magazine, published on November 2005.

Just came home from a lovely dinner. Today is my father’s birthday. I wish I had the strength to tell him how much I appreciate his presence in my life every day. But I grew up not learning how to say the words, in a house where tenderness is frowned upon. So here, let me use this space and say: Happy birthday, Papa. I love you.

What They Wanted
Stephen Dunn

They wanted me to tell the truth,
so I said I’d lived among them,
a spy, for year,
but all that I wanted was love.
They said they couldn’t love a spy.
Couldn’t I tell them other truths?
I said I was emotionally bankrupt,
would turn any of them in for a kiss.
I told them how a kiss feels
when it’s especially undeserved;
I thought they’d understand.
They wanted me to say I was sorry,
so I told them I was sorry.
They didn’t like it that I laughed.
They asked what I’d seen them do,
and what I do with what I know.
I told them: find out who you are
before you die.
Tell us, they insisted, what you saw.
I saw the hawk kill a smaller bird.
I said life is one long leavetaking.
They wanted me to speak
like a journalist. I’ll try, I said.
I told them I could depict the end
of the world, and my hand wouldn’t tremble.
I said nothing’s serious except destruction.
They wanted to help me then.
They wanted me to share with them,
that was the word they used, share.
I said it’s bad taste
to want to agree with many people.
I told them I’ve tried to give
as often as I’ve betrayed.
They wanted to know my superiors,
to whom did I report?
I told them I accounted to no one,
that each of us is his own punishment.
If I love you, one of them cried out,
what would you give up?
There were others before you,
I wanted to say, and you’d be the one
before someone else. Everything, I said.

One of my favourite poems by Dunn, and one that I fall in love with, each time I read it.

Stephen Dunn

Yesterday, for a long while,
the early morning sunlight
in the trees was sufficient,
replaced by a hello
from a long-limbed woman
pedaling her bike,
whereupon the wind came up,
dispersing the mosquitoes.
Blessings, all.
I’d come so far, it seemed,
happily looking for so little.

But then I saw a cow in a room
looking at the painting of a cow
in a field — all of which
was a painting itself —
and I felt I’d been invited
into the actual, someplace
between the real and the real.

The trees, now, are trees
I’m seeing myself seeing.
I’ll always deny that I kissed her.
I was just whispering into her mouth.

This is from Loosestrife by Stephen Dunn, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Always, always, Stephen Dunn, who knows me inside out, whose words live under my skin.

The Vanishings
Stephen Dunn

One day it will vanish,
how you felt when you were overwhelmed
by her, soaping each other in the shower,
or when you heard the news
of his death, there in the T-Bone diner
on Queens Boulevard amid the shouts
of short-order cooks, Armenian, oblivious.
One day one thing and then a dear other
will blur and though they won’t be lost
they won’t mean as much,
that motorcycle ride on the dirt road
to the deserted beach near Cadiz,
the Guardia mistaking you for a drug-runner,
his machine gun in your belly—
already history now, merely your history,
which means everything to you.
You strain to bring back
your mother’s face and full body
before her illness, the arc and tenor
of family dinners, the mysteries
of radio, and Charlie Collins,
eight years old, inviting you
to his house to see the largest turd
that had ever come from him, unflushed.
One day there’ll be almost nothing
except what you’ve written down,
then only what you’ve written down well,
then little of that.
The march on Washington in ’68
where you hoped to change the world
and meet beautiful, sensitive women
is choreography now, cops on horses,
everyone backing off, stepping forward.
The exam you stole and put back unseen
has become one of your stories,
overtold, tainted with charm.
All of it, anyway, will go the way of icebergs
come summer, the small chunks floating
in the Adriatic until they’re only water,
pure, and someone taking sad pride
that he can swim in it, numbly.
For you, though, loss, almost painless,
that Senior Prom at the Latin Quarter—
Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan, and you
just interested in your date’s cleavage
and staying out all night at Jones Beach,
the small dune fires fueled by driftwood.
You can’t remember a riff or a song,
and your date’s a woman now, married,
has had sex as you have
some few thousand times, good sex
and forgettable sex, even boring sex,
oh you never could have imagined
back then with the waves crashing
what the body could erase.
It’s vanishing as you speak, the soul-grit,
the story-fodder,
everything you retrieve is your past,
everything you let go
goes to memory’s out-box, open on all sides,
in cahoots with thin air.
The jobs you didn’t get vanish like scabs.
Her good-bye, causing the phone to slip
from your hand, doesn’t hurt anymore,
too much doesn’t hurt anymore,
not even that hint of your father, ghost-thumping
on your roof in Spain, hurts anymore.
You understand and therefore hate
because you hate the passivity of understanding
that your worst rage and finest
private gesture will flatten and collapse
into history, become invisible
like defeats inside houses. Then something happens
(it is happening) which won’t vanish fast enough,
your voice fails, chokes to silence;
hurt (how could you have forgotten?) hurts.
Every other truth in the world, out of respect,
slides over, makes room for its superior.

The rain. A full day, all to myself. These things, lulling me to sleep.

The Waiting
Stephen Dunn

I waited for you calmly, with infinite patience.
I waited for you hungrily, just short of desperate.

When you came I knew that desperate was unattractive.
I was calm, no one wants the kind of calm I was.

It tried your patience, it made you hungry for a man
who was hungry. I am that man, I said,

but I said it calmly. My body was an ache, a silence.
It could not affirm how long it had waited for you.

It could not claw or insist or extend its hands.
It was just a stupid body, closed up and voracious.

Holding on to these little truths.

Stephen Dunn

If you travel alone, hitchhiking,
sleeping in woods,
make a cathedral of the moonlight
that reaches you, and lie down in it.
Shake a box of nails
at the night sounds
for there is comfort in your own noise.
And say out loud:
somebody at sunrise be distraught
for love of me,
somebody at sunset call my name.
There will soon be company.
But if the moon clouds over
you have to live with disapproval.
You are a traveler,
you know the open, hostile smiles
of those stuck in their lives.
Make a fire.
If the Devil sits down, offer companionship,
tell her you’ve always admired
her magnificent, false moves.
Then recite the list
of what you’ve learned to do without.
It is stronger than prayer.