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Stephen Dobyns: Napatree Point

A mile from where I live is a beach where in winter

I walk the dog, console myself with the ocean’s beauty

and ponder the imponderables, like what to do about

living in a country that has become an embarrassment,

disliked and even hated around the world, a constant

source of bickering among its people and led by men

and women who seem stupid, but are probably only

scared, greedy, egotistical and ignorant. Forgive me

if I forget a few. How it got that way and what to do

becomes one of the imponderables and can keep me

busy for a long walk, while being unable to work out

an explanation makes me feel like a Good German

of the late 1930’s. I mean, if only I thought the FBI

were tapping my phone, I’d take it as a compliment.

Regrettably the commissars of modern poetry don’t

like poems to talk about bloodshed and babies blown

to smithereens, so I expect I should hold my tongue.

Not so long ago Harvard’s top poetry critic told me

and a few others that she took pride in never once

having voted. It was hard to feel more than sad, but,

to me, she vanished, she became a non-person, as if

she had walked out on the human race, her writings

also, since what truth could she say about poetry if

she separated poetry from the world? I know I can’t

just rant in a poem, although it’s hard to stop myself,

but given the problem I hate going back to writing

about flowers and sex. Yet none of that affects being

ashamed of the country in which one lives and not

knowing how to fix it. The Great Twitterer is famous

for saying poetry makes nothing happen, other things

also, but even if that were the case, one must, I think,

still raise one’s voice. It would be dreadful to be merely

a good German, turning my back as Jews were carted off.

Is it the enormity of the daily calamity that makes so many

contemporary poets write lines without meaning or use

language to hide meaning? Take Ashbery, for instance,

not to beat a dead horse, and surely other names might

do as well, but is non-meaning intended to conceal

the awfulness of meaning, just as Dadaists made snappy

responses to World War One? At times it seems the only

sane answer is a joke. Even slapstick can be an answer,

as if to slip on a banana might form a rational response

to the trenches of the Somme. But despite the jokes,

non-meaning seems a kind of shirking, to duck what

somebody lacks the capacity to express. And the value

of non-meaning? Totally zip. Do you see how these

imponderables can get a grip? In a letter, Chekhov wrote

that he didn’t need to say stealing horses was wrong,

he only had to describe a horse thief exactly. But even

Chekhov couldn’t write about the Czar without landing

in a Russian clink. That at least tells us a lot about

the power of language in Russia, whereas I could write

about the president to my heart’s content and not make

the slightest dent on the escutcheon of his indifference,

which is still no reason to write about flowers and sex.

So in fact it’s the frustration of being unable to describe

the horror without just shouting, Look at the horror!

I mean, people aren’t dumb. Even if they turn away

to scribble non sequiturs they know something nasty

is creeping up behind them. How these imponderables

can age us, like dragging a dead horse up a mountain,

what do I get but a dead horse up a mountain? And I’m

still no closer to understanding how to live in a country

that’s become an embarrassment, which occurs in part

from weighing the idealism of the constitution against

the cynicism of the present administration, much like

comparing a bathing beauty to a drag queen, which is

not to insult drag queens. But what to do except make

inept and fretful remarks remains unclear when really

I’d like to skirt the defects of language and hurl a rock—

another useless gesture meant to make me feel better.

Were I walking along that winter beach I would now

have walked a mile at least with nothing to show for it

but a wrinkled brow and a vague wringing of hands,

while the question remains as fresh as ever—what

to do about the horror? Then the subject is no longer

about a solution but about the question itself hanging

in the air at the end of Napatree Point with the surf

beating against it, not to wear it down, but to keep it

bright, till at last I whistle for the dog and walk back.


From Winter’s Journey published by Copper Canyon. Copyright 2010 Stephen Dobyns. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Stephen Dobyns’ most recent book of poems The Day’s Last Light Reddens the Leaves of the Copper Beech was published by BOA Editions in September, 2016.



9 comments on “Stephen Dobyns: Napatree Point

  1. Wayne Karlin
    December 15, 2022

    Dobyns articulates the dilemma for many of us.


  2. sidney wade
    February 26, 2020


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jane
    December 31, 2016

    Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Greg Thielen
    December 30, 2016

    Yes. Beautiful. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ken Rosen
    December 28, 2016

    Wonderful read this again. 2017 depends on poems like this.


    Liked by 1 person

  6. John Lewis
    December 28, 2016

    No, the “Good Doctor” couldn’t write about the Tsar without being threatened with prison, but he wrote so searchingly and scathingly about the Tsar’s wretched nation that he remains a beacon of light wherever there is stupidity, greed, and indifference. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of human kind, and they will prevail!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maureen O'CONNOR
    December 28, 2016

    Thank you. Imponderables.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. anisioluiz2008
    December 28, 2016

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

    Liked by 1 person

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