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
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
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.
from New and Selected Poems,
Photo: "Desparity," by Nguyen Tang