Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Kiss --- Stephen Dunn

The Kiss

"She pressed her lips to mind" --- a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone's lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she's missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear,
speaking sense. It's the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.

---Stephen Dunn

The Kiss by Stephen Dunn

Oh how I love when greatness comes out of a mistake. Are there any more humble origins for successes than mistakes? A stale, moldy piece of bread trumps countless hours of lab research in the discovery of powerful antibiotics; a misplaced comma or two is the difference between one million dollars and one dollar; a fluttering of wind steers a ship far enough off course that it reaches a new land, America, and not the West Indies. An abundance of world-altering discoveries are rooted in mistakes. Powerful business minds, people like Jack Welch, Bill Gates, even Oprah, are often critical of young students and their fear of mistakes. The fear of being wrong pigeonholes us to a safe tract; what great discoveries have been made from the safe tract? I see what these folks are getting at. Mistakes provide the best learning experiences possible. In fact, our missteps are sometimes not even missteps at all, but mere launching off points for epiphanies. In his poem The Kiss, Stephen Dunn seizes upon a harmless, mindless typo to create a beautiful poem that plumbs the emotional depths a single kiss can accomplish. Someone else's mistake is the catalyst for Dunn's treasured poem.

Before anything else it is funny: "She pressed her lips to mind." Reading that line surely induces a chuckle, as it should. Mistakes are funny because they are unexpected and goofy. It would be simple to stop at that and move on, maybe telling someone about the typo over coffee later in the day. Dunn doesn't take the simple path. Pressing lips to mind is a fascinating image, both scientific, spiritual, sensual, and strangely comforting. This realization is where the poem begins, asking "How many years I must have yearned / for someone's lips against mind." Yes, he's having a little fun with a pun of his own, but again this is just the beginning. He imagines "Pheromones, newly born, were floating / between us," and with that we are transported to a new world where "there was hardly any air." This breathlessness gives an immediacy and magic to the world and to the kiss.

"She kissed me again, reaching that place / that sends messages to toes and fingertips." Wow, that is some deep kiss, but it makes sense that lips upon mind would achieve such a cerebral connection. This melding of mind and body, of the physical with the intellectual, seems indicative of the purest love. How many times do you hear 'I love her for her personality' or 'He has an exquisite mind' and question the validity of these statements? Dunn is showing us a true representation of loving someone's mind with your body; a kiss to the mind, a transfer of the physical, emotional, and intellectual at the same time. Pardon the pun, but it's mind-blowing. The kiss doesn't just orbit to his bodies furthest points, but it probes inward "all the way to something like home." While it reaches for his most comfortable and guarded places, Dunn obliges, noting "some music was playing on its own."

I want to pause for a moment from the analysis to look at a few technical aspects Dunn has mastered with this poem. While the poem is eighteen lines in length, I would still contend it is a modified sonnet. The subject matter certainly fits the bill for a sonnet, focusing on a kiss, albeit a metaphysical one, and the romance that accompanies it. Most of the lines are roughly similar in length and syllables. The stanzas are organized into quatrains, with a final couplet at the end. There is also the skeleton of a rhyme scheme within the poem, especially apparent in the middle of the poem. 'Home' and 'own' provide a near perfect rhyme in the second stanza, while 'missed' and 'less' deliver the same in the third stanza. The near rhymes (or slant rhymes, if you prefer) in the fourth stanza and final couplet are a little less obvious, but they are there. It might seem lackadaisical at first, but Dunn has done something very clever with rhyme scheme in this poem. Think about the action that is taking place in the poem and the theme it represents. The rhyme scheme begins to appear in the second stanza when the kiss is first beginning and Dunn has music playing on its own. As he slips into the trance the kiss creates and considers the woman doing the kissing, the rhymes continue in the third stanza. In the fourth stanza he tries to evaluate the kiss, and this breaking free to the rational also represents a departure from the rhyme scheme that was popping up in the poem. Dunn has given us a dashing example of tying all of the poem's moving parts together, without drawing attention to his handiwork.

In the midst of this amazing kiss Dunn makes sure to praise the woman for the wonderful gift she is giving him. "Nothing like a woman who knows / to kiss the right thing at the right time." Sure, I could focus on the innuendo in those lines, but that innuendo belies a skillfully buried feature within the compliment. The woman "knows," meaning she has knowledge, not just of the kiss, but of what Dunn loves. This knowing carefully loops back to the poem's beginning when "she pressed her lips to mind." A sign that she is completely knowledgeable, caring, and aware, she "then kisses the things she's missed." I get the sense that she missed things on purpose so that in returning to them there's extra emphasis, but one could easily argue that she doesn't miss anything at all. Either way, Dunn knows, without a doubt, that he is a lucky man, asking about this new kiss, "How had I ever settled for less?"

As with all good kisses, the brain seems to get in the way and force an ending. When Dunn begins to analyze the kiss and thinks "this is intelligence, / the wisest tongue / since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear," he's dooming the kiss to an end. Maybe "dooming" is too strong a word, because as we see the end is a happy one with a marriage, but still his thinking gets in the way of the kiss. Yes, "It's the Good, / defining itself," but this revelation feels somewhat bittersweet, almost like a mistake. We know full well that mistakes might be bad in the short term, but they pay long term dividends that future generations will reap. Maybe Dunn's mistake to end the kiss gave him the chance to go forth and write this poem, to loose her lips from his mind and share with us all that was inside.


danielle said...

Wow. I just discovered this poem by accident recently, and instantly recognized a moderness I could fully relate to coupled with a timeless quality in the structure and rhyming that was exceedingly comfortable. I hadn't yet begun to explore the true depths of the content, however, and I'm blown away anew by the poem. I truly appreciated your analysis. Thank you. Danielle

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi Danielle, your gratitude is greatly appreciated. Like you, I'm always impressed when a poet can balance the modern images with timeless rhyme schemes and poetic structures. That marriage of modernity and classic is tough to pull off, but Dunn did it fantastically with this poem.