cover image Pagan Virtues

Pagan Virtues

Stephen Dunn. Norton, $26.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-324-00231-4

In this 19th book, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Dunn (Different Hours) offers up the soul of a mature, solitary man who appreciates company, but who finds that love is, ultimately, “a better way to be alone.” The humble pagan virtues he upholds may be less flashy than religious ones, but they provide many “options,” such as “to uphold the beautiful// by renouncing the pretty.” Moving from instructions to his eulogist (“for accuracy you might say/ I often stopped,/ that I rarely went as far as I dreamed”) to the disenchantments of success, he advises the lucky to “try to settle in,/ take your place, however undeserved,/ among the fortunate.” The book’s center is the luxurious pit of “The Mrs. Cavendish Poems,” a sequence that moves through an affair with an unsettled, run-on address to the eponymous lady, plumbing the solipsism of its sorrow: “the sea doesn’t want to be bothered today,/ it merely wishes to behave like a lake/ reflect back a face it believes is its own.../ it would also like to change/ its salty ways, but like you,/ Mrs. Cavendish, it can’t.” Intimations of illness and age are carried forward with small steps of irony and courage in Dunn’s latest, moving work. (Oct.)