The four sections of Dabney Stuart’s new book represent a progression toward release from self-preoccupation, both personal and cultural, and a growing intimation of acceptance of the world outside the self. Using language with elasticity and elegance, Stuart is engaged in serious play, usually on more than one level.
His familiar wit and subtlety arise in a context of good humor and sadness, warmth and reserve. His subject are a deft blend of pop culture (baseball, the movies), family situations, and legends, some old (Hansel and Gretel), some invented (“The Harpist’s Dream”). His is by turns straightforward and surreal. In fact, Stuart’s skillful rendering of dream sequenced is one of the appealing dimension of this work.
Stuart is concerned as well with awakenings and with transitions, sometimes intensified into transformations. In “Love Story,” for example, a physical injury becomes the way to talk of psychic development; after a dizzying performance by an unusual broken leg, the poem concludes,
Relax said middle age when I woke up,
Dreams are for those who never heal. We healed.
The title poem is a fresh appearance of Narcissus—not a mere reworking of the legend, but an opening out of the present world through the possibilities of the old myth. At the close of the poem, Narcissus, who has been fishing without luck, pulls his reflection from the water:
sit into the boat, takes
it upon himself,
a perfectly imperfect fit,
leaving the water
Narcissus Dreaming is the work of a mature, accomplished artist, sensitive to psychological nuance and complexity.
Dabney Stuart, professor of English at Washington and Lee University, is the editor of Shenandoah. He is the author of eight books of poetry, including Common Ground, Don’t Look Back, and Narcissus Dreaming, as well as a book of criticism on Nabokov. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, the Southern Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and other publications. Stuart has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship.
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