cover image Lines of Defense

Lines of Defense

Stephen Dunn. Norton, $24.95 (80p) ISBN 978-0-393-24081-8

In his 17th collection, Pulitzer-winner Dunn (Different Hours) navigates the social and moral boundaries of middle-class life with a weary eye and penchant for giving wavering advice. His distance from youth, when “a leather jacket helped for some,/ and for others a neckline that promised/ a descent into a dreamland,” is sharply highlighted, contrasting with a present when “every day, if I could,/ I’d oppose history by altering one detail.” Echoes of love affairs, professional and personal jousts, and a recurring uncertainty as to the rightness of one’s path inform a stark ambiguity in the speaker’s relationship to his own life’s story. Dunn has a sorrowful take on mortality, and he rails against the life’s cruelties: “My brother is talking about his ice maker/ because a man can’t talk about his lymphoma/ and chemo every minute of the day.” What Dunn ultimately bets big on (in addition to the Jets-Patriots game), is the ability of language to recount, heal, and even recreate: “Only when his son spoke,/ measuring with precise, slow-/ to-arrive language the father/ he had lost, did something in me move./ There was my brother restored,/ abstracted, made of words now.” (Jan.)