A Discreet Charm

By Stephen Dunn

Featured Art: Luncheon Still Life by John F. Francis

Our good friends are with us, Jack and Jen, 

old lefties with whom we now and then share

what we don’t call our wealth. We clink our

wine glasses, and I say, Let’s drink to privilege . . .

the privilege of evenings like this.

All our words have a radical past, and Jack

is famous for wanting the cog to fit the wheel,

and for the wheel to go straight

down some good-cause road. But he says

No, let’s drink to an evening as solemn

as Eugene Debs demanding fair wages—

his smile the bent arrow only the best men

can point at themselves. I serve the salad

Barbara has made with pine nuts, fennel,

and fine, stinky cheese. It’s too beautiful to eat,

Jen says, but means it only as a compliment.

Over the years she’s eaten the beautiful

and accommodated mixed feelings, walked

through squalor as often as the rest of us

to reach some golden center of a city.

Here’s to an evening of contradictions,

I say, let’s never live without them.

We’re in northern Appalachia

where strip mining and slag heaps

uglify the nearby mountains, and where

the already poor will lose their jobs

if the ugliness is corrected.

A sign on the interstate says Noah’s Ark

Being Rebuilt Here. Here is where irony

dies its regular public death, and many believe

they’re telling the truth

by simply saying what they think,

which means here is like most places.

Jack’s about to say something, but the scallops

dappled with sesame seeds and wrapped in bacon

are ready. They’re especially delicious,

Barbara says, because they’re unnecessary.

Our friends don’t seem to think that’s funny,

but we all dig in to the unnecessary as if

we can’t get enough of it. As I was about to say,

Jack says, Ever since Obama, I’m feeling

a widespread sense of decency, aren’t all of you?

I’d like to agree with him, but widespread

suddenly makes me think of the night sky

and large, empty spaces. More like pinpricks

of decency, I want to say, isolated little outposts,

but here comes Barbara with the shameless

store-bought cheesecake called Strawberry Swirl,

which, for a while, tends to end all arguments,

though there was a time we’d have renounced it—

back then when evenings like this were emblems

of excess and vapidity and a life that made us furious.


Stephen Dunn is the author of fifteen collection of poetry, including the recent What Goes On: Selected & New Poems 1995-2009. His Different Hours was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. In 2009 he received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. He lives in Frostburg, Maryland.

Originally published in NOR 6

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