Stuart Dybek is a splendid urban writer with a deep feeling for music and an equally deep allegiance to dreams. His second book of poems, Streets in Their Own Ink, is filled with moody nocturnes, with long, rhythmic, solitary walks through city streets at night ("the rule on city nights/ is still: keep moving"). It has a gritty realism infused with a sense of the marvelous, a religious aura:
Alone, along a street that's suddenly
like any other, you're blessed
simply to continue
another night's walk home.
Dybek is a cosmopolitan with deep roots in his native territory. He begins with a ferocious loyalty to his neighborhood, to his Polish, Catholic, working-class boyhood in Chicago, which he has evoked in three extraordinary books of short fiction: Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan. In both poetry and prose, he sees the extraordinary in ordinary lives and blends the quotidian and the fantastic. "There were autobiographies/ at every corner,/ legends, litanies, manifestos/ memoirs in forgotten tongues," he writes in his poem "Autobiography."
Dybek treats the past as both familiar and strange country. It can't be simply recalled with any deep accuracy. "Suppose the past could not be recalled/ any more than we can foretell/ the future, that in order to remember/ we'd have to visit an oracle," he posits in "Revelation":
At such moments, the past
would suddenly bloom into consciousness
with a shock like clairvoyance.
What had happened would seem to loom
with the mystery of what will happen,
and stunned by this unwanted gift, we'd pray
for the revelation to be lifted.
Dybek's fierce nostalgia is balanced and even outweighed by a redemptive need to forget, hence his epigraph from Apollinaire's poem "Toujours": "Who are the great forgetters/ Who will know just how to make us forget such and such a part of the world/ Where is the Christopher Columbus to whom is owed the forgetting of a continent." Dybek's greatest loyalty has always been to an inner city of dreams, the geography of the interior, our secret lives. For him, this inner life is inextricably intertwined with the outer one, which we cannot forget, which seems never to forget us.
The garments worn in flying dreams
were fashioned there --
overcoats that swooped like kites,
scarves streaming like vapor trails,
gowns ballooning into spinnakers.
In a city like that one might sail
through life led by a runaway hat.
The young scattered in whatever directions
their wild hair pointed, and gusting
into one another, they fell in love.
At night, wind rippled saxophones
that hung like wind chimes
in pawnshop windows, hooting through
each horn so that the streets seemed haunted,
not by nighthawks, but by doves.
Pinwheels whirred from steeples
in place of crosses. At the pinnacles
of public buildings, snagged underclothes --
the only flag -- flapped majestically.
And when it came time to disappear
one simply chose a thoroughfare
devoid of memories, raised a collar,
and turned one's back on the wind.
I remember closing my eyes as I stepped
into a swirl of scuttling leaves.
(All quotations are from Stuart Dybek, "Streets in Their Own Ink." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 2004 by Stuart Dybek.)