Thursday, December 11, 2008

Alan Dugan/ I and Thou

Last night at a party I was talking to a poet friend who hadn't been familiar, until recently, with Alan Dugan's work. That isn't unusual, as Dugan's been a bit off the radar for most poets working now. At the time that he won the Yale Younger Poets Prize he'd been working in a factory in New York which made -- I kid you not -- plastic vaginas used to demonstrate the proper way of inserting a diaphragm. The book went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. Imagine having all that fall into your life, at 40! He wasn't so interested in engaging in the poetry world -- or was interested but wasn't comfortable there, or had an ongoing stake in thinking of himself as outside the mainstream. He lived in Truro for decades, with his wife the painter Judith Shahn, and taught some local workshops, gave readings, and lent a huge amount of time to the Fine Arts Work Center while he went on publishing his books over the decades. His collected poems, published by Seven Stories Press late in his life, won him a second NBA, and it's a monument, an amazing compilation of cranky, acerbic, unexpected poems that somehow seem to slip by effortlessly till you read them aloud and realize how incredibly well made they are. Here's his most famous poem, a classic piece of dark comedy I never weary of. He's a figure whose work needs to stay in circulation, for all kinds of reasons -- one of which is to remind us of the huge range of tones that a poetic voice can allow. Who was ever better at a poetry of grumpy, sardonic, rebellious directness?


Nothing is plumb, level or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists

are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap

or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing

like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built

the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors

for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I

danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk

with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage's nails

into the frame-up of my work:
It held. It settled plumb.

level, solid, square and true
for that one great moment. Then

it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.

God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it I sawed it

I nailed it and I
will live in it until it kills me.

I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand cross-piece but

I can't do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,

a help, a love, a you, a wife.


Elizabeth said...

wow. that's really something. and the end brought tears to my eyes. thank you

Nancy Devine said...

i concur with elizabeth. wow. i will scout around the internet today for dugan's work.

Michelle said...

Mark, thank you for posting Love Song: I and Thou.

shivoysieh said...

He and James Tate were two of the very best poets with humour and sense. Still are. Good and welcome presentation here. Thank you.

shivoysieh said...

Great poem that builds to a climax and never quits. A hard thing to do in poetry, very hard. Enjoyed poem from first line to last. I, personally, especially liked the line ... will live in it until it kills me.

Fred said...

I'm pretty late to this party, but I should note that your own books are filed not too far from my 3-4 Dugan collections, Mark.