Stephen Dobyns: The Great (Allusion)ist

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Speakwell.com) Stephen Dobyns is a poet and novelist.

Editor’s note: I’m currently a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) candidate in the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. Below is a look at one of my favorite poets, Stephen Dobyns, and his use of voice in his collections Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights.

If Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights are indications of how the speaker is used in Stephen Dobyns‘s poems, then expect each poem to be a lens through which the reader gets a heightened view of American culture and the hypocrisies in its ideals. Though there’s an overlap of themes in both books, any similarities in the use of speaker are few and far between.

In Black Dog, Red Dog (1984), the speaker primarily functions as a watchdog of humanity, barking at various kinds of injustices committed within America’s blue collar communities. And as a result of those injustices, the people in the poems are transformed for better or for worst. Take the poem, “The Gun,” which on the surface could be a poem about sexual harassment and the consequences of parents’ carelessly leaving firearms where their children can find them.

While playing at a friend’s house, the boy is jarred by his friend’s request for him to pull his pants down. When the boy tries to leave, an already unpleasant situation takes a turn for the worst after the boy’s friend says he has something to show him:

He goes to a drawer and when he turns around

you see he is holding a small gun by the barrel.

You feel you are breathing glass. You ask if it is

loaded and he says, Sure it is, and you say: Show me.

He removes the clip, take a bullet from his pocket.

See this, he says, then puts the bullet into the clip,

slides the clip into the butt of the gun with a snap.

The boy sits on the bed and pretends to study the gun.

He has a round fat face and black hair. Take off

your pants, he says. Again you say you have to go home.

He stands up and points the gun at your legs. Slowly,

you unhook your cowboy belt, undo the metal buttons

of your jeans. They slide down past your knees.

Pull down your underwear, he tells you. You tell him

you don’t want to. He points the gun at your head.[1]

What saved the boy’s life is when he pees his pants:

The boy with the gun sees the spreading pool of urine.

You baby, he shouts, you baby, you’re disgusting.

You want to apologize, but the words jumble and

choke in your throat. Get out, the boy  shouts.[2]

(IMAGE: Stock)

Running from the house, the boy is relieved to still be alive. But he’s transformed by the event. Summing up her own near-death experience[3], Virginia Rivers provided some insight into the boy’s transformation. “As each second passed there was more to learn…mysteries and so much more, all pouring into my mind.[4]” Jody A. Long, J.D., a near-death researcher, elaborated on the issue. “One of the near-death experience truths is that each person integrates their near-death experience into their own pre-existing belief system,[5]” Long was quoted.

Watching his neighbors in their routine of living despite what happened upstairs, I’m sure the boy knew his sense of the world no longer exists. “You know you died up there among the comic books/ and football pennants,” according to the poem, “as sure as if the boy had shot your/ face off, shot the very piss out of you.[6]” And as a result, the boy’s forever transformed.

Another example of people transformed by violence is “Under The Green Ceiling.” In the poem, two strangers on a country road have two different desires. The first man, who talks about women, longs for his wife. The second man, who’s surviving at all cost, plans on robbing the first guy:

…he imagines how the knife will slide up

under the ribs, how he’ll drag the body off the road,

then escape over the field to the railway line.

So, while the one man talks about girls,

the other tries to steel himself and feel hatred

for his companion, tries to make him the focus

for all that has gone wrong in his life—

the loss of his job, desertion of his family.[7]

When the guy succeeds in killing the first man, the killer is transformed “…as he awaits the slow unfolding of justice.[8]” According to an anonymous quote, “Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.[9]” The lack of personal growth results in transformation through a system of reduction, according to the poem:

He has no sense of himself as a fragment.

He has no sense of how he and his dead companion

made up one man. Add a third and he’s still

one man; add a fourth, likewise. But by himself,

he’s a fragment of wall, part of a broken pot.[10]

There’s also a message in those lines that we’re not in this world alone, that every person is a fragment of something greater than themselves. It’s our faith in that notion that makes life worthwhile, according to Gordon B. Hinckley[11]. It’s that type of faith that keeps us “going when the challenge seems overwhelming and the course is entirely uncertain.[12]” And without that everyone would be like the killer summed up in the last stanza:

…he’s like the quivering rodent under its

protection of leaves, terrified when the chance

rock crashes through its green ceiling, victim

of a world that is endlessly random and violent.[13]

In the poem, “Dancing In Vacationland,” Dobyns explores class and privilege. The “men in gray work clothes” and “women in baggy print dresses” who occupy the poem come out of their “tar-paper mobile homes” and “plywood shacks” to dance because it’s the sane thing to do when a higher power keeps its foot on their backs. They dance by the “junked cars and tires, broken furniture, hungry geese and chickens, bored hunting dogs.[14]” In the midst of the merriment, these hard-living people become a spectacle to the tourists. There’s, clearly, an assertion of power by both the out-of-towners and city officials:

…And the tourists from New York

stop their cars and the tourists from Massachusetts

take pictures and the tourists from Connecticut

feed candy to the little ones, until at last the realtors

and tour-guide directors and lobster-shack owners,

until at last the alternative-life-style farmers,

gift-shop operators, local chamber of commerce,

town police, state police and sheriff’s department

all band together and a spokesperson apologizes

to the tourists from the south and begs them

to take no more pictures; and they try to make

the people stop dancing, but the people won’t listen

and keep right on dancing—one foot up, one foot down—

so they push them back off Route 1, push them back

to the little roads behind Searsport, push them back

into the tin and tar-paper mobile homes, the plywood

shacks surrounded by junked cars…[15]

There’s a strong allusion to gentrification. Reading those lines, I thought of the neighborhood bus tours through once economically-depressed parts of the city that have been “revitalized” to attract potential residents with big money. And just as city officials pushed the dancing locals back into their plywood shacks and mobile homes, officials in America’s metropoli attempt to gloss over the eyesores with new stadiums and condos, eventually relocating poor folks out of the city.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

In both Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights, the overall mode of engagement is conversational for the most part. The speaker exists in the poem mainly as an observer, which I’ll explain in detail later in this paper. But Dobyns has a way of making the reader feel as if they’re a pedestrian with whom he’s made small talk while on a long subway ride; or the reader could be in a bar somewhere, listening to Dobyns recount his many tales.

The loss of something, captured in “The Gun” from Black Dog, Red Dog, is explored differently in Cemetery Nights. In that collection, there are the losses of loved ones and time. In the title poem “Cemetery Nights,” the dead are in denial: they pretend they’re alive by attempting to read the newspaper, laughing at something on TV, or clinking their knives and forks on porcelain plates. The two who “roll on the ground,/ banging and rubbing their bodies together/ as if in love or frenzy” is proof that desires outlive the body[16].

Unlike Black Dog, Red Dog, the use of speaker in these poems provide a split-screen view of life and death. In this way, as Dick Sharpies once put it, death is nature telling everyone to slow down[17]. This warning is echoed in “Tomatoes”, where the death of a guy’s mom slows him down. When the coroner calls the guy in to identify his mother among the 10 bodies, the guy, unaware of his mother’s plastic surgery just before her death, has a hard time:

With her new face, she has become a stranger.

Maybe it’s this one, maybe it’s that one.

He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?

He presses their hands to his cheek.

Which ones consoled him?

(PHOTO: beverlyajackson.com) Among Dobyns's honors and awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Those lines suggest two things: 1) the guy might not have known his mother very well if he couldn’t distinguish something of her from the other nine bodies, or 2) the mother had an obsessive amount of plastic surgery to where she became a stranger to those who loved her.  That her son was the only person called to identify the body left me with some questions: Was her son the only living family she had left? Or did her “desire to stay pretty” push her other family members away?

It’s clear the speaker’s intention in this poem is not to mourn the loss of a loved one, or to contemplate the social life of the deceased. Instead, it’s to show how death interrupts life with a lesson. For the guy, who ends up cremating the 10 bodies and placing their ashes in a garbage can, it’s a lesson on the power of love. After talking with poet Tim Seibles about Dobyns’s work, he noted it also look at the violence and insanity of life in both the 20th/21st centuries. “That’s a comment on violence against women in our culture,” Seibles said.

Like desire in “Cemetery Nights,” love as memory also outlives the body. Seibles wondered if it’s also a testament to the man’s loneliness and desperation? That’s possible, especially when the guy decides what to do with the ashes of his mom and the nine other surrogates:

In the spring, he drags the garbage can

out to the garden and begins working the teeth,

the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.

Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.

They grow straight from seed, so fast and big

that the young man is amazed. He takes the first

ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,

he sees his mother’s breasts. In their smoothness,

he finds the consoling touch of her hands.[18]

(PHOTO: Matthew Stockman)

Reading both Black Dog, Red Dog and Cemetery Nights, I found that Dobyns’s use of speaker was at its best in “Kentucky Derby Day, Belfast, Maine,” from Black Dog, Red Dog.

On the surface, the poem could be about horseracing and the interesting characters the speaker encounters while at the bar: the “fast fat girls in tight shorts…a boy as thin as a razor…a chain-smoking old man…” and then Leo, whom Dobyns felt was important enough to identify with a name while the others remain nameless[20]. But go beneath the surface, peel back the layers, and racehorses become a metaphor for every “sure thing” in life we place our bets on for better circumstances.

For the people in the bar, the “sure thing” might have been their dreams, jobs, or their own bodies. And when those sure things don’t come through like those folks had hoped, they end up drinking away their pain and disappointments at Barbara’s Lunch (a place that pops up a few times, as a place-marker, in Dobyns’s other poems), and waiting for Big John.

For the speaker, the “sure thing” was his struggling marriage, which he’s sure is headed toward divorce. It’s unknown how much the speaker’s invested into his marriage, just that “…making a bet is like falling in love…” While watching the actual horse races on TV, the speaker’s marriage is a racehorse he’s hoping will outpace the obstacles. An allusion to him holding on to his struggling marriage was what he tells “the girl with the collar” when she’s about to play the jukebox while the race is still going: “Hold up, I tell her, this is a big race and it’s almost over./ She’s indifferent but polite so she waits. What’s your horse?/ she asks. Maybe Bold Ego, I say, unable to see him.[21]” That horse, “Bold Ego,” suggests two things: 1) maybe it’s the thing that contributed to his marriage being where it is, or 2) maybe it’s the speaker’s attempt to hold his head high while facing uncertainty.

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Conversation

Earlier in this paper, I mentioned that the overall modes of engagement in his poems are conversational for the most part. However, there are times when the speaker’s tone is judgmental as a result of the speaker existing in his poems mainly as an observer and the distance he puts between himself and the other characters.

In “Kentucky Derby Day, Belfast, Maine,” the speaker’s not examined as thoroughly as the other characters in the poem. For instance, “The light from the door [that] throws their shadows on the wall” doesn’t throw the shadow of the speaker, who’s also in the bar, alongside the others. In that distance is where the tone and observation become judgmental: “I think how defeated their lives are,” according to the poem[22]. Seibles suggested that the speaker also sees his own defeats in their defeats.

Here’s another example in this poem where the tone of speaker is judgmental:

…bar empty except for/…a table of five people from

the chicken plant/ who I bet have been drinking beer

and shots since breakfast

Two of them are fast fat girls in shorts and loose

blouses and one wears a dog collar.[23]

Here’s another one:

…[I] wonder why/…the boy sticks holes in his arms to

to make dumb/ tattoos with the name Jesse and little

stars and crosses,/ how he will die with that sentimental

doodling still/ on his body, having spent his life as a poor

man’s/ advertisement for unrequited love.[24]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

But the tone is redeemed by the hindsight provided. Barbara S. Cole [25] writes about the power of hindsight in her book about the “painful journey” she took to fight alcohol and drug addiction. “Hindsight…is a learning function,” she writes. “Without this ability…We cannot clean up the wreckage of our actions.[26]

What Dobyns attempts in Black Dog, Red Dog is to help a country come to terms with its “wreckage of actions” as a result of racism, classism, and economic disparities. The task in Cemetery Nights is attempted on a micro level. The individuals themselves—whether dead or alive—come to these terms on their own through hindsight, what’s referred to as “a double-edged sword” by Lance B. Kurke[27]. “Too much of it and the past seems inevitable,” Kurke writes in his book on leadership. “With too little hindsight, a panoramic perspective is impossible.[28]” But with Dobyns’s hindsight, I don’t think we can ever have too much.


[1] Stephen Dobyns, “The Gun”, in Velocities, New York City: Viking Penguin Books, 1994, p. 135.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Notable Quotes on Near-Death. January 26, 2011. <http://www.near-death.com/quotes.html#nde&gt;

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dobyns, op.cit, p. 136

[7] Ibid., p. 142

[8] Ibid., p. 143

[10] Dobyns, op.cit, p. 143

[11] Gordon B. Hinckley – a clergyman and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter -Day Saints

[13] Dobyns, op.cit, p. 143

[14] Ibid., p. 140

[15] Ibid., p. 140-141

[16] Ibid., p. 181

[18] Dobyns, op.cite, p. 184-185

[19] Ibid., p. 161-165

[20] Ibid., p. 161

[21] Ibid., p. 163

[22] Ibid., p. 162

[23] Ibid., p. 161

[24] Ibid., p. 162-163

[25] Barbara S. Cole – a licensed psychotherapist, a professional interventionist and certified clinical hypnotherapist with a private practice in the Corona Del Mar/Newport Beach area of Southern California.

[26] Barbara S. Cole, “We Will Not Regret the Past nor Wish to Shut the Door on It,” from The Gifts of Sobriety: When the Promises of Recovery Come True, Center City: Hazelden, 2000, p. 30.

[27] Lance B. Kurke – an associate professor of management at Duquesne University’s John F. Donahue Graduate School of Business, where he chairs the Leadership and Change Management division.

[28] Lance B. Kurke, “A Lack of Vision,” from The Wisdom of Alexander the Great: Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Man Who Created an Empire, New York City: AMACOM, 2004, p. 99.

4 thoughts on “Stephen Dobyns: The Great (Allusion)ist

  1. Alan,

    Have I ever talked to you about Stephen? Have you heard me tell anyone and everyone that he is my favorite poet, and that “The Gun” was the poem that woke me up?

    1. Hey Patricia!

      Stephen Dobyns is fierce. My introduction to him came from an interview the poet Douglas Goetche did with an online publication. Stephen Dobyns was one of the poets listed who Douglas Goetche said he gets a spark whenever he reads their work. I feel the same way. And even though we haven’t talked about your love of Stephen Dobyns’s work, I think I saw a poem you either dedicated to him or was “after” him. Thanks Patricia 🙂

    1. Thanks Vivek. I’m currently studying under Joy Harjo, whose my mentor in the Stonecoast MFA program. She and I were talking about Dobyns two days ago, and Joy said she wish she had taken Dobyns’s class while she was in grad school. She loves his work. And so do I. Thanks again for stopping through the blog 🙂

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