A riff on refuge

by Stephen Dunn

May 17, 2005

excerpted from an essay

From the Underground Railroad to those who hide the Anne Franks of the world, from the needs of the displaced to the great decency of those who provide shelter and food, the word refuge has earned its good name.

My personal examples of such refuge are small by comparison. The friend who gave me her house rent-free after I became a refugee of my marriage. The many residencies I've had at the artist colonies Yaddo and MacDowell. The homes I've lived in as child and adult that have been places of normal retreat-places, as Robert Frost reminds me, I haven't had to deserve.

I have also sought various kinds of refuge in sports, sex, and teaching; therefore I know something about the ways refuge satisfies, but also about how satisfaction can conceal your self from yourself, and how complacency is often an antecedent of thrill. There are no safe havens-for long.

And there are refuges that are just watering holes on the way to nowhere. The refuge of the habitual-the comfort of it, the stasis. The refuge of wishing to please-those little forays into hackdom that injure the soul. The refuge of the lie, how it buys time, lets you ride for a while in its big white car.

I tell my students the public wants excitement without danger, wants the artist to be considerate enough to stop before his bones show, to please not be so tacky as to disturb. I talk about the refuge of the neatly wrapped package. The refuge of the melodious. The refuge of entertainment and distraction that all of us except those artists who go all the way seem to need.

Books, though, have been my most enduring refuge, not the ones I've written, but the ones I've read—my good, long disappearances into them, how they always return me to the world; in the best of instances, to an enlarged world. In fact, a world with more places than I could have imagined in which to hide, get lost, or be found. A great book is a refuge for those with what Keats called "negative capability," those of us more or less at home with uncertainties, who are not made entirely miserable by the burden of consciousness.

But I've also found comrades in books merely good, even mediocre. I've loved how some authors manage to give, if not refuge, then a kind of home to the displaced, the misunderstood, the estranged, give them names and secret thoughts, even chapters of their own—and the displaced, the misunderstood, the estranged among us turn the pages and find ourselves there and are less alone.

I tell my students that I once believed my strangest thoughts had only been thought by me. It was Franz Kafka who made me feel sane. He dramatized aspects of my unarticulated life.

That was no refuge for him, though. He had no schoolyard to go to when things went bad, didn't—as I did, after Barbara Winokur broke up with me and I dropped the phone-leave the house and play ferocious, cathartic basketball until dark.

He had no father who told him he was the best third basemen he'd ever seen.

Or a mother who showed him her breasts when he dared to ask.

Can I call such events refuges? Have I been lucky to have them? Would the answer confuse life with art?

Parable of the Fictionist

He wanted to own his own past,

be able to manage it

more than it managed him.

He wanted all the unfair

advantages of the charmed.

He selected his childhood,

told only those stories

that mixed loneliness with

rebellion, a boy's locked heart

with the wildness

allowed inside a playing field.

And after he invented himself

and those he wished to know him

knew him as he wished to be known,

he turned toward the world

with the world that was within him

and shapes resulted, versions,


In his leisure he invented women,

then spoke to them about

his inventions, the wish just

slightly ahead of the truth,

making it possible.

All around him he heard

the unforgivable stories

of the sincere, the boring,

and knew his way was righteous,

though in the evenings, alone

with the world he'd created,

he sometimes longed

for what he'd dare not alter,

or couldn't, something immutable

or so lovely he might be changed

by it, nameless but with a name

he feared waits until you're worthy,

then chooses you.

Stephen Dunn,

from New and Selected Poems,


Photo: "Desparity," by Nguyen Tang


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