There is no sweetness that doesn’t leave a stain: four poems by Stephen Dunn

Each From Different Heights

That time I thought I was in love
and calmly said so
was not much different from the time
I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud
to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius
of my hands

And the times I felt less in love,
less than someone
were, to be honest, not so different

Each was ridiculous in its own way
and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.

I am astounded
by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights
diminished, which is simply the law.

And the big bruise
from the longer fall looked perfectly white
in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.


Back then when so much was clear
and I hadn’t learned
young men learn from women

what it feels like to feel just right,
I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, and husband

in prison for breaking someone’s head.
Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness

was how much she wanted it, and all
I knew
were backseats and a night or two

in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
We worked
in the same office, banter and loneliness

leading to the shared secret
that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits

was wildly comic, which lead to my body
existing with hers
like rain that’s found its way underground

to water it naturally joins.
I can’t remember
ever saying the word, tenderness,

though she did.  It’s a word I see now
you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it

often enough to know what silk and deep balm
it is
when at last it comes. I think it was terror

at first that drove me to touch her
so softly,
then selfishness, the clear benefit

of doing something that would come back
to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became

reflective and motiveless in the high
ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are just abstract

until they have an ache in them. I met
a woman never touched
gently, and when it ended between us

I had new hands and new sorrow,
everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.

The Answers

Why did you leave me?

We had grown tired together. Don’t you remember?
We’d grown tired together, were going through the motions.

Why did you leave me?

I don’t know, really. There was comfort in that tiredness.
There was love.

Why did you leave me?

You began to correct my embellishments in public.
You wouldn’t let me tell my stories.

Why did you leave me?

She is… I don’t wish to be
any more cruel than I’ve been

You son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I was already gone.
I just brought my body with me.

Why did you leave me?

You found out and I found I couldn’t give her up.
I was as shocked as you were.

Why didn’t you lie to me?

I was already lying to you. It was hard work.
All of it suddenly felt like hard work.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted to try monogamy again.
I wanted the freedom to be monogamous.

You fucker. You fucking son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted you both. I thought I could be faithful
to each of you. You shouldn’t have made me choose.

Don’t you know what betrayal is?

I never thought of it as betrayal. More like one pleasure
of mine you should never have known.

You really are quite an awful man.

Why did you leave me?

It was time to leave.
The hour of leaving had come.

Why did you leave me?

It would take too long to explain. Please
don’t ask me to explain.

Will you not explain it to me?

No, I will not explain it to you. I’ll say anything
rather than explain it to you. Even things that sound true.


Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
   one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
   has come

and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
   for a while lost

in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
   to mouth-size,

hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
   that doesn’t leave a stain,

no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ….

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
   was killed in a car

he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
   to repeat, and I repeated

the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
   Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
   then returns to its dark

source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been, or what bitter road
   it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.
There is no sweetness that doesn’t leave a stain: four poems by Stephen Dunn

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