Dunn's Revisions to "Power"
One of the most exciting things about seeing an author's papers in Special Collections is the opportunity to witness the writing process and early versions that, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist by the time of publication.
In a folder in Box 12, papers dating from 1992 to 2000, we find a draft of Stephen Dunn’s poem “Power,” which would appear in its “final” version in print in the 1996 volume Loosestrife (W.W. Norton). The draft of “Power” exists, like many of Dunn’s drafts, on yellow notebook paper, written in blue ink. As we saw in the 17th century manuscript pages of Mary Wroth, these hand-written copies of poems are intriguing for their capacity to show stages of a poem’s life on the page and allow us to imagine the act of writing or transcribing a poem as a physical one. In Dunn’s case, especially, we can see the way a poem changed between drafts, and actually bear witness to the precise changes as he had, at least at one point in the process, envisioned them.
“Power” presents an especially compelling case, showing us not only what Dunn had written and rejected, but also inviting many questions about the ideas or motives behind these choices.
As it appears in Loosestrife, “Power” is a poem that begins with commentary on dwarves (or “dwarfs” in Dunn’s speaker’s account. Starting with “drawf-throwing contests” in line 1, he notes some of the ways in which these small bodies are abused, exchanged, and laughed at by the “we” he describes in “big, proper bodies.” The content of the stanza seems sympathetic in the abstract, but the tone in the poem is something less so: it’s inescapably amused, because the speaker is among the “we” that laughs at “dwarf-jokes.” So too is he among a “we” that laughs at another kind of non-normative body, the ones so obese “you have to cut away whole sides of their homes / to get them to the morgue.” The speaker half-admits to the despicable nature of laughing at these bodies: he says, half-chastising his imagined community of laughing people, “Don’t we snicker, even as the paramedics work.”
The next stanza brings together the first two objects of mockery in a single figure, “a fat dwarf,” whose “small political base” sends this imaginary group of laughers into greater fits. In the final stanza, he brings that community into a more concrete existence, placing himself at “the spirited dinner table” of witty friends; one of their number, Roberta, exhorts her laughing friends to join her in a collective mea culpa: “Let’s apologize to all of them,” she says. But of course, in what seems to be the general argument of the poem, the people laughing at the table are beyond contrition: although their “big, proper bodies” are just the right size, they are prone to exuberant laughter at others’ expense. Roberta’s call to humility just makes them laugh more: “by then,” the speaker admits, “we could hardly contain ourselves.” This kind of aberrant growth is metaphorical and is, I think, a hint at the significance of the title: the ones who can snicker are the powerful precisely because they have the freedom to grow larger in this figurative way. They are not physically large like “people so far they can’t scratch their toes,” nor the apparently hysterical mix of large and small like “a fat dwarf,” but in their scorn for others they are capacious and can not be stopped.
Much of the first half of the poem would be published as it appears in the draft, and Dunn appears to have made very few major revisions. But there are some phrases scratched out on the yellow page that are nonetheless intriguing and invite us to ponder the poem as it might have been.
One of these phrases is “voter turnout,” jotted down to the right of the poem’s last stanza. We are led to wonder whether that phrase was part of a train of thought as Dunn composed the poem or something else entirely. It doesn’t immediately seem related to much of the poem’s content. Since the box contains materials dating from 1992 and 1996, two years in which presidential elections were held, we might imagine a fictional scenario in which Dunn is not just writing a poem but also listening to election coverage; what if the phrase is merely idle scribbling, related more to a situation in which an election outcome comes down to voter turnout than a poem about dwarf-throwing? But then we remember the speaker’s musings on “the small political base / of a fat dwarf,” and we might think of another scenario in which Dunn imagines the sorts of jokes that the members of the table are making. Perhaps “voter turn-out is a punchline to a dwarf-related joke that wasn’t necessary in the poem itself but needed to be thought of in order for the poet to inhabit the voice of the poem, a person at a table of jokers who have ostensibly been making quips about “fat dwarf” over the entire course of a dinner.
Even more intriguing than “voter turn-out” is the phrase scratched out by the title of the poem. It reads “Strange Fruit.” Was this phrase a vestige of a plan to write a poem with that title, or a title originally conceived for the poem we have before us? The title of “Power” is somewhat enigmatic; the poem addresses a sort of social power but does not grapple with Power—with a capital “P”––in any concrete or political sense. But even as the title has a somewhat mysterious relationship with the content of the poem, it does seem to be a more appropriate one than “Strange Fruit” would have been. “Strange Fruit” is the title of a poem by Abel Meeropol, written in 1937 and then set to music for Billy Holiday in 1939. The song and the original poem on which it is based are texts that protest the lynching of African Americans. They turn on a powerful, haunting image of “Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees.” How are these bodies related to the bodies that Dunn’s “Power” imagines? The dwarf, the obese person, and their composite in the figure of the fat dwarf? Dunn’s poem lacks signs of any additional or overt allusion to Meeropol’s poem, and the relationship between the two is not at all clear. Nothing aside from the crossed-out phrase signals that “Power” is about race at all; or rather, if it is about race, it’s about the general callousness of white people, people at home and with a place at a “spirited dinner party.” Everything about the phrase suggests privilege and probably, though only tacitly, the privilege of white people. But even if this reading is available in the poem’s text, the connection to “Strange Fruit” remains vexed and, in this reader’s view, if Dunn considered but ultimately rejected it as a title, he made the right choice. Though his poem confronts a hard truth about these people, the mere trace of another, harder poem reminds us that that truth is not nearly as hard as other stories it could tell. To say so is not to compete in the so-called suffering Olympics; in fact, by calling the poem “Strange Fruit,” Dunn would have invited that competition explicitly, demanding that readers see “throwing dwarfs” and giving them as gifts as a parallel to lynching and enslaving Africans. There may be ways in which this parallel is compelling, and it is certainly provocative. But to ask how one treatment is akin to another ultimately defines non-whiteness as non-normative, and though our government practices and policies bear out that definition in horrifying ways, our world population suggests the injustice inherent in perpetuating it—even if the goal of a poem is to critique power and privilege.
What is perhaps most interesting about the crossed-out “Strange Fruit” and “Voter Turnout” in the draft of the poem is the way it forces us to ask what a poem is and what forms “count” as part of the poem and its history. Without consulting Dunn, we can not know why these phrases are on the page, nor why they are scribbled over. But Dunn himself may not recall why, and his recollection may not even be the best place from which to determine the implications of their inclusion and ultimate exclusion. Whether or not they were once intended to be part of the specific poem that was published in Loosetrife as “Power” or not, the draft ensures that they are, and remain, part of the poem. They remind us that poems exist in different forms and all of those forms make meaning.