Readings — From the September 2014 issue

Mrs. Cavendish and the General Malaise

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By Stephen Dunn, from Five Points, vol. 16, no. 1. Dunn’s most recent book of poems is Lines of Defense (W. W. Norton).

Like a boxer at a pre-fight weigh-in, defiant,
no sign of acceptance, Mrs. Cavendish began
to stare meaninglessness in the eye.
The difference: no one, nothing, stared back.
Mrs. Cavendish, I said, it’s impossible to win.
As we consider today, it’s already tomorrow.
As we admire the flowers, how easily they’re ravaged
by wind and rain. The best we can hope for
is a big, fat novel, slowing down the course of time.
Several tomorrows always linger in the margins,
which means until the very last page
you’ll choose to live with the raw evidence
of how someone else sees and makes a world.
Mrs. Cavendish, I’m also sorry to report
the maps are missing from the office of
How to Get Where You Want to Go —
just one more symptom of the general malaise.
I have little hope that they can be found,
at least not in our lifetime. At the risk of telling you
what you already know, Mrs. Cavendish, here’s
something merely true: the insufficiency of the moon
has been replaced by the lantern, the lantern by
the light bulb, but what won’t go away is the promise
of salvation out there in the bright beyond.
There will always be people who think suffering
leads to enlightenment, who place themselves
on the verge of what’s about to break, or go
dangerously wrong. Let’s resist them
and their thinking, you and I. Let’s not rush
toward that sure thing that awaits us,
which can dumb us into nonsense and pain.
My dog keeps one eye open when he sleeps.
My cat prefers your house where the mice are.
Stare ahead, my friend. The whole world is on alert.
Mrs. Cavendish, every day is old news.

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