Allegory of the Cave (1990)
He climbed toward the blinding light
and when his eyes adjusted
he looked down and could see
his fellow prisoners captivated
by shadows; everything he had believed
was false. And he was suddenly
in the 20th century, in the sunlight
and violence of history, encumbered
by knowledge. Only a hero
would dare return with the truth.
So from the cave's upper reaches,
removed from harm, he called out
the disturbing news.
What lovely echoes, the prisoners said,
what a fine musical place to live.
He spelled it out, then, in clear prose
on paper scraps, which he floated down.
But in the semi-dark they read his words
with the indulgence of those who seldom read:
It's about my father's death, one of them said.
No, said the others, it's a joke.
By this time he no longer was sure
of what he'd seen. Wasn't sunlight a shadow too?
Wasn't there always a source
behind a source? He just stood there,
confused, a man who had moved
to larger errors, without a prayer.
For one thing, Dunn is a poet suspicious of where we've found ourselves, curmudgeonly dissatisfied with the knowledge we've claimed. In this first poem of Landscape at the End of the Century, Dunn may give us a man climbing "toward the blinding light," with its promise of enlightenment, but the end result is something different; for in his updated version of Plato's allegory, whatever truth the man discovers leaves him, as happens so often in Dunn's poems, in a place of deeper uncertainty, having moved on "to larger errors, without a prayer." Even though the man may come to understand that "everything he had believed/was false," he really finds no better footing than "his fellow prisoners." Behind every truth we reach, Dunn seems to say, there is another question we've failed to consider, and behind every question there is an answer that fails to satisfy.
Even so, Dunn continues on, and his poems can be seen as efforts to "update" ideas, definitions, myths, and stories. In fact, the second poem of this collection is entitled "Update," and it is addressed to Melville's Bartleby, whose spirit seems everywhere present in Dunn's poems, especially his "quaint/contagious way to refuse." Throughout his career in poems such as "Tenderness," "Happiness," "Sweetness," "Kindness," and numerous others evoking abstractions, he refuses our incomplete definitions, updating them for our current age in which "everyone dreams of money/or revenge." In poems such as "Sisyphus's Acceptance" and "Sisyphus in the Suburbs," he updates the myth of Sisyphus, turning the rock into something only Sisyphus can see and then giving him "a smile/so inward it cannot be seen," effectively making the gods ineffective, so that they sink "back/in their airy chairs." In his collection Local Visitations, he devotes twenty poems to imagining the updated lives of 19th century writers in modern day New Jersey towns where, true to Dunn's sensibility, they notice everything "while choosing little,//seeking answers, distrusting them..."
In Dunn's poems, efforts to communicate truth--what he calls "the disturbing news" (and truth for Dunn is rarely anything other than dark or disturbing)--lead more often to doubt. "Wasn't there always a source/behind a source," he asks in "Allegory of the Cave (1990)," as if to suggest that there is no end to our epistemological searching. The mind, just like the heart in his poem "A Small Part," "is at best an instrument of approximation." Certainty, surety, and confidence don't exist, or, if they do, then one is at risk of becoming "one of those lunatics/of a single idea," as the first poem of Everything Else in the World cautions. One gets the sense that, for Dunn, to find a truth would be simply to trade one cave for another.
The word "prisoners" turns out to be an important word in Dunn's poems. Perhaps one thing his poems argue is that we never really move beyond ourselves, beyond entrapments, beyond the limited, finite views we have of our conditions. In one way or another, his speakers remain trapped by marriage, by history, by knowledge, by an emptiness "that can't be filled," as he says in his poem "Emptiness." The central problem, though, is that they are achingly aware of being trapped, unlike the prisoners who think they hear "lovely echoes" and extol "what a fine musical place to live." Even having found "the upper reaches" of their various caves, so often Dunn's speakers find themselves inconsequential, ineffective, mistaken. Like the guardian angel that begins his collection Between Angels, his speakers are "[a]float between lives and stale truths" and attempting "to live beyond despair." Even climbing a tower in the last poem of Everything Else in the World, his speaker admits that the "tower itself was proof I couldn't escape/when I escaped from the world." Like the palm at the end of Wallace Stevens' mind, Dunn keeps reaching for something just beyond our understanding, almost additional "upper reaches" beyond the last one he finds, closer and closer but never quite finding "the source" of the lack at the heart of his thinking.