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Poem of the week: ‘Sweetness’ by Stephen Dunn

It’s fair to say that this year has not been off to a promising start. Coping with the exhausting strain placed on us by repetitive lockdowns and the insecurity which threatens to shroud our future, fatigue has become a part of the coronavirus zeitgeist. It’s a time where sweetness can feel hard to come by.

Dunn’s ‘Sweetness’ doesn’t provide a saccharine solution to our sour taste, as one might expect from a poem so titled. He acknowledges the pain we feel in living and the damage that life can do. The opening line ‘Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear / one more friend / waking with a tumour’, speaks to the limits of our human tolerance for witnessing devastating loss. Repeating ‘the one or two words we have for such grief / until…speaking only in tones’ holds a familiarity to my own experience of grief recently, which has only been exacerbated in lockdown as communication becomes limited to distant phone calls and face-to-face interactions held tantalisingly at arm’s length. Whether it is endless disturbing headlines to the point of desensitisation or profound personal grief, this poem resonates with the experience we have collectively shared over the past year.

Even if it feels like we are reaching our breaking point, a certain sweetness can come and alter the way we stumble through the world. Such moments are unexpected, and perhaps aren’t immediately noticed. But as Dunn asserts, no matter when, where or how, ‘a sweetness comes’.

Dunn describes how ‘in the ignorance of loving / someone or something, the world shrunk / to mouth-size / hand-size, and never seeming small’. This beautifully encapsulates the love- infused vision of the world as at once contained and infinite, in both possibility and present- ness.

Dunn acknowledges the transitory nature of such feelings, legitimising the passing of the sweet into the bitter (and a combination of the two). He names the ‘stain’ which can be left behind, or that which isn’t ‘ever sufficiently sweet’, which reminds us of the price of loving something well. Indeed, sweetness ‘comes as if on loan, stays just long enough / to make sense of what it means to be alive’. Here, we are reassured in our inability to make sense of our lives in such fleeting moments.

Dunn concludes by expressing the desperate human need for love; the ‘bitter road / it’s travelled’ remains of little importance. Instead, ‘to come so far, to taste so good’, depicts how Dunn savours the blessing of such encounters in life, for all the good and bad which they bring. This sensory imagery embodies the enjoyment of each present moment without worrying about what may be lost. For me, this poem is a beautiful and pertinent reflection upon the experience of love, while acknowledging the sweet pain of the human condition.

Image: Bundo Kim via Unsplash

Image depicts cherry blossoms floating on water.