Alan Dugan, who died in 2003, is an engaging and entertaining writer, but do not call him charming. Charm can be an obnoxious quality in writing, when you can tell that the writer is trying to be ingratiating. Dugan, that amusing, soulful and engagingly nasty poet, sings the truth, often with a splash of high-grade vinegar, and if you'd like it a little sweeter, why, then, the hell with you.
Funny and haughty, radical and lyrical, Dugan's poems race nimbly between the vulgar and the classical, as in possibly his best-known poem, "How We Heard the Name."
The river brought down dead horses, dead men and military debris, indicative of war or official acts upstream, but it went by, it all goes by, that is the thing about the river. Then a soldier on a log went by. He seemed drunk and we asked him Why had he and this junk come down to us so from the past upstream. "Friends," he said, "the great Battle of Granicus has just been won by all the Greeks except the Lacedaemonians and myself; this is a joke between me and a man named Alexander, whom all of you ba‑bas will hear of as a god."
That poem is about 100 words long. Some writers need that much space to clear their throats; Dugan goes rapidly from plain American speech like "but it went by, it all/ goes by, that is the thing/ about the river" to the Battle of Granicus, the Lacedaemonians and that Alexander who is in many places called "the Great."
But he is never called "the Great" in Dugan's poem — because, you might say, the poet is that drunk-seeming soldier on the log, who addresses us ba-bas from the messy and appalling river of history. The dead horses and dead men are "indicative of war/ or official acts upstream." I like the dirt-plain repeated "dead" and the mocking "indicative of" and the somewhat daffy "ba-bas"; I admire those phrases for their air of freedom, and for the meticulous, shrewd intelligence that crafted that air of freedom.
Robert Pinsky is the poetry editor of Slate. His new book, Selected Poems, comes out this month.
The poem's scorn for euphemism, its horror at official violence, its impatience with bland notions of "greatness" also make it a humane artifact, dignified as well as hard-assed. Dugan respects his readers, and shows his respect by avoiding plausible baloney.
In a similar way, when Dugan looks at nature, he respects the mystery too much to find little morals or uplifting visions. In another poem, "Plague of Dead Sharks," Dugan repeats twice a question that begins with the ordinary, two-syllable expression, "Who knows?"
"Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?" is the poem's opening and returns as the next-to-last line, preceding the conclusion, with its combined resolution and wonder, about the ocean: "what the sun burns up of it, the moon puts back."
In some complicated way, the ocean both heals and corrodes, and something like the same applies to the inebriated candor of a soldier floating down the terrible river of history, and to Dugan's book Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, astringent, corrosive, entertaining and full of life.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.
This is this morning: all the evils and glories of last night are gone except for their effects: the great world wars I and II, the great marriage of Edward the VII or VIII to Wallis Warfield Simpson and the rockets numbered like the Popes have incandesced in flight or broken on the moon: now the new day with its famous beauties to be seized at once has started and the clerks have swept the sidewalks to the curb, the glass doors are open, and the first customers walk up and down the supermarket alleys of their eyes to Muzak. Every item has been cut out of its nature, wrapped disguised as something else, and sold clean by fractions. Who can multiply and conquer by the Roman numbers? Lacking the Arab frenzy of the zero, they have obsolesced: the butchers have washed up and left after having killed and dressed the bodies of the lambs all night, and those who never have seen blood awake can drink it browned and call the past an unrepeatable mistake because this circus of their present is all gravy.
On An East Wind From The Wars
The wind came in for several thousand miles all night and changed the close lie of your hair this morning. It has brought well-travelled sea-birds who forget their passage, singing. Old songs from the old battle- and burial-grounds seem new in new lands. They have to do with spring as new in seeming as the old air idling in your hair in fact. So new, so ignorant of any weather not your own, you like it, breathing in a wind that swept the battlefields of their worst smells, and took the dead unburied to the potter's field of air. For miles they sweetened on the sea-spray, the foul washed off, and what is left is spring to you, love, sweet, the salt blown past your shoulder luckily. No wonder your laugh rings like a chisel as it cuts your children's new names in the tombstone of thin air.
On An Old Advertisement And After A Photograph By Alfred Stieglitz
The formal, blooded stallion, the Arabian, will stand for stud at fifty bucks a throw, but there is naturally a richer commerce in his act, eased in this instance by a human palm and greased with money: the quiver in his haunch is not from flies, no; the hollow-sounding, kitten-crushing hooves are sharp and blind, the hind ones hunting purchase while the fore rake at the mare's flank of the sky. also, the two- or three-foot prick that curls the mare's lip back in solar ectasy is greater than the sum of its desiring: the great helm of the glans, the head of feeling in the dark, is what spits out, beyond itself, its rankly generative cream. After that heat, the scraggled, stallion-legged foal is not as foolish as he acts: the bucking and the splayed-out forelegs while at grass are practices: he runs along her flank in felt emergencies, inspired by love to be his own sweet profit of the fee and the desire, compounded at more interest than the fifty in the bank.
Love Song: I and Thou
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 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 crosspiece but I can't do everything myself. I need a hand to nail the right, a help, a love, a you, a wife.
Excerpted from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetryby Alan Dugan. Copyright 1961 by Alan Dugan. Excerpted by permission of Seven Stories Poems.