“Gray” By Stephen Dunn,1939 – 2021
By Norah Christianson
I go to our river, the Housatonic, and to the Sound for the pleasure of seeing the wide expanse of sky and water. I walk on Long Beach for the pleasure of working my body. But the river and the Sound are also my church. At low points, upsetting times in my life, at times of grief or times close to despair, I go to the water. Sometimes I don’t even walk, but just stand out there in the open under the immensity of sky and wait. In time, the sky and water work on me, change me, heal me. Because the sky and water—the enormity of it—changes my perspective of myself. And, as Mark Doty has said, “What is healing, but a shift in perspective?”
So, I identify with the man in this poem of Stephen Dunn’s. He has come to the ocean “to walk everything off,” and in all that vastness of space and water, has been able to laugh at the “negative of himself” where the dark is made light and the light, dark. He’s able to laugh at the unimportance of himself and his problems, “…his sadness breaks like a fever.” And maybe he feels a little too loopy, a little too unhinged to go home just yet, but he is emptied and freed. Cleansed. In the state of “Right Understanding.”
I’ve seen him there, been him,
someone who’s gone
to the ocean to walk everything off,
hood up, hands gloved, a gray man
on a gray coast
in, say, March. I’ve seen him pause
where there’s no division between
retreat and advance,
watched him examine the dead
horseshoe crabs and what the gulls
have picked clean.
If his dog is with him, he talks
to his dog. If he talks to himself
it’s because what he needs
to say should not be overheard.
I’ve seen him stare at waves as if
I’ve seen the smile that means
he’s caught himself staring, has finally
seen the negative
Of himself in all its conspicuous gray.
Then his sadness breaks like a fever
and he becomes
a man alone unable to stop
laugh after rising laugh, not quite
hardly ready for the long drive home.
Stephen Dunn was born on June 24, 1939 in New York City. Dunn earned a BA from Hofstra University on a basketball scholarship and later worked in advertising. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 2001 collection, “Different Hours,” and received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.