“Ambush at Five O’clock” – Stephen Dunn
from the New Yorker, February 3, 2014
Ambush at Five O’clock
We were by the hedge that separates our properties
when I asked our neighbors about their souls.
I said it with a smile, the way one asks such a thing.
They were somewhat like us, I thought, more
than middle-aged, less dull than most.
Yet they seemed to have no interest
in disputation, our favorite game,
or any of the great national pastimes
like gossip and stories of misfortunes
about people they disliked.
In spite of these differences, kindred
was a word we often felt and used.
The man was shy, though came to life
when he spotted an uncommon bird,
and the woman lively, sometimes even funny
about barometer readings and sudden dips
in pressure, the general state of things.
We liked their affection for each other
and for dogs. We went to their house;
they came to ours.
After I asked about their souls
they laughed and stumbled towards an answer,
then gave up, turned the question back
to me. And because I felt mine always was
in jeopardy I said it went to the movies
and hasn’t been seen since. I said gobbledy
and I said gook. I found myself needing
to fool around, avoid, stay away from myself.
But my wife said her soul suffered from neglect,
that she herself was often neglectful
of important things, but so was I.
Then she started to cry. What’s the matter? I asked.
What brought this on? She didn’t answer.
I felt ambushed, publicly insensitive
about something, whatever it was.
It was a dusky five o’clock, that time
in between one thing and another.
Our neighbors retreated to their home,
but the women returned
and without a word put her arms
around my wife as if a woman weeping
indicated something already understood
among women, that needn’t be voiced.
They held each other, rocked back and forth,
and I thought Jesus Christ, am I guilty again
of one of those small errors
I’ve repeated until it became large?
what about me? I thought. What about
the sadness of being stupid?
Why doesn’t her husband return
with maybe a beer and a knowing nod?
poetry is a conversation, of course, a poet
has with all the other poets who’ve come
before him, her, here Dunn is evidently
channelling Robert Browning, “This is
my last Duchess”, Browning writes,
“painted on the wall / Looking as though
she were alive.”, from his “My Last
Duchess“, a poem I’ve never forgotten,
wherein the speaker discusses the
portrait of his earlier wife, one he’d
summarily purportedly got rid of
Robert Browning had learned his craft,
the dramatic monologue, from, of course,
Shakespeare, down to even its dramatic
in Dunn the Browningian drama is
significantly less dour, nobody out and
out dies, though the dilemma is never
not existential, however less morally
compromised, less psychologically
and tragically fraught
neither does Dunn rhyme
but that just sends us back to Homer
of course, less epic, more, maybe,
middle class, very, and distinctively,
but that’s how you read between the
lines, the verses, in this case, and
thus across the centuries
poetry is a conversation