Toward the end of a life, the accumulation of regret seems an inevitability, with a minefield of mistakes laid out throughout the decades. Stephen Dunn’s poetry collection “Pagan Virtues” enables Dunn to walk himself and the reader through these mistakes as he endeavors to change the tone of each misstep from regret to acceptance. Dunn has mixed and, at times, unclear results in attempting to do so, with his cynical style of humor sometimes obscuring his feelings despite creating a more enjoyable read. His humor often strengthens the collection, though, reflecting his divided thoughts rather than being a deliberate ploy to mislead or confuse his audience. But each mistake is not equal in magnitude, and Dunn could have benefitted from greater clarity when discussing this in certain passages.
Dunn’s sentiments are transported to the reader through one of two approaches. His more anecdotal poems are shielded by a layer of emotional ambiguity: the perspective of his former self blends together with his reflective opinion on the event, sometimes to the point that the two become indistinguishable. While the execution of these stories seems lackluster in isolation, they usually succeed in giving context to the second approach — poems that provide a more direct analysis of Dunn’s hindsight, offering specific feelings in a general sense. The settings from the former allow one to connect the dots and understand the broader picture of Dunn’s life. On an initial reading, these connections mimic those of a scatterbrained detective’s bulletin board, but generally are clarified when revisited.
“The Errors” is one of the more telling poems from the second category, giving clear insight to Dunn’s manner of reflection. The catch? This poem is placed beyond the halfway point in Dunn’s collection. Up until then, the reader is unsure of Dunn’s methods, which is particularly dangerous for certain poems. In “The Errors,” he projects his own interactions with past mistakes onto the second person. He writes, “The errors you’ve made and keep making / linger and indict you long after / they’ve become instructive.” Dunn reveals that his relationship with past faults is on neither extreme of the regret-acceptance spectrum. He doesn’t just wallow in self-pity; he heeds the advice that his mistakes provide to prevent their duplication, but part of him still wishes the mistakes never happened to begin with. While Dunn acts in the present, he still cannot help but think in the past, often the distant past, from time to time. This comes to define “Pagan Virtues.”
Dunn’s anecdotes are not always fully forgivable even as they are explained. They often refer to botched romantic efforts, which unfortunately come off as creepy or misogynistic. He recalls watching a topless woman on a beach as she read one of his books. He further explains his desire to ask her “What is pleasing (her)” every time she smiles during her reading. Another time, he describes one man’s feeling that flirting has been negatively impacted by the introduction of media encouraging the use of statements like “May I?” shortly before that man wishes that a particular woman would wear a more revealing dress. In this case, it is unclear whether Dunn is projecting his own ideals onto this unnamed man or discussing a sort of person he experienced in the past. The extent to which both these events reflect his present beliefs is unclear. These segments are wildly distasteful, but it is important to consider the passage of time after these errors later in the reading when deciding whether or not the displayed sentiments apply to Dunn’s current self. Also worth considering is the fact that, at the time of writing this collection, Dunn was happily married to his wife of many years, so it is likely that he is putting himself into the shoes of his former self when discussing other women, rather than truly wishing he had not ended up with his wife. Even so, the inclusion of such segments is so jarring and off-putting that it feels as though Dunn could not have written them without the intention of being remorseful for his past gross misconceptions. Dunn may not even be the man depicted by the unnamed man at all.
But unfortunately, this cannot be clearly ascertained. While other poems depict profound regrets for past mistakes, the language of the problematic poems themselves is not remorseful enough to keep the reader from feeling great discomfort with Dunn. Many great poems leave plenty of work for the reader when it comes to extracting the intricacies of the author’s meaning, but Dunn simply cannot afford to take these liberties when dealing with such sensitive and problematic subject matter. If people have changed after and felt remorse for a dark time in their lives where they were unequivocally wrong, coming clean and apologizing does not merit admonishment. Without the certainty of where Dunn stands, the anecdotes cannot serve their (hopefully) intended purpose.
Dunn’s overall acceptance and prolonged regret of past faults allows his readers to relate to him, although not completely to darker times in his life. His brutal honesty in spite of what’s best for his image reinforces his narrative of regret, but sometimes the reader yearns that this honesty be accompanied by a more explicit portrayal of current feelings. One shouldn’t read “Pagan Virtues” with the intention of reprimanding Dunn’s past self, Rather, it is about using Dunn’s flawed years to reconsider his own history and, from it, pave a better future.