Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides


In Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, Stephen Dobyns's tenth book of poetry, we see the world through the melancholic eyes of Heart - blood-pumping organ, lover, poet, and skeptical philosopher of the everyday. Dividing the Heart poems is the long "Oh, Immobility, Death's Vast Associate," a jazzy disquisition on human isolation and inaction in the midst of a planet full of people brooding over similar concerns. With the characteristic black humor, maniacal imagination, and straightforward language that ...
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In Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, Stephen Dobyns's tenth book of poetry, we see the world through the melancholic eyes of Heart - blood-pumping organ, lover, poet, and skeptical philosopher of the everyday. Dividing the Heart poems is the long "Oh, Immobility, Death's Vast Associate," a jazzy disquisition on human isolation and inaction in the midst of a planet full of people brooding over similar concerns. With the characteristic black humor, maniacal imagination, and straightforward language that rollercoasters in tone and is mythic in its preoccupations, Stephen Dobyns has written a cycle of medieval morality poems for a new dark age.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The 10th collection of poems by suspense novelist (Boy in the Water; Forecasts, May 3) and poet Stephen Dobyns (Velocities; Common Carnage) is a modern morality cycle with an Everyman-like figure named Heart at its center. In 61 episodic poems, Dobyns reels off the foibles of Heart, who comes to resemble Charlie Brown as seen by Charles Bukowski. Heart is foiled repeatedly in his ill-conceived attempts to attract women (his knife-sharp steel valentine is intercepted by the bomb squad; he buys chest wigs to bolster his masculinity, but ends up eating them). His quest for happiness comes to an end over and over in similarly amusing and depressing anecdotes, and by the book's close one wonders whether Heart might not do well to listen to Prozac. Or even to Freud--Dobyns's willful sarcasm seems to want to foreclose its possibilities, as if by filling this book with cartoon versions of anxiety some genuine problem of lyric identity--is Heart really only misogynistic Spleen?--might be forestalled. Which is not to dismiss the more pointed cartoons: in "Great Job," Heart takes the craze for validation to the point of running down into the street in the rain and telling everybody "Great job" as they pass. At the center of the book is a meditation on depressive inertia, "Oh, Immobility, Death's Vast Associate," in which Dobyns takes a stab at figuring out why most of existence is spent in a hostile state of doing nothing. In this case, it might just be a well-deserved rest. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Essaying his tenth collection of poems, Boston-based poet Dobyns pays complex tribute to admired poets John Berryman, Zbigniew Herbert, and others and in the process mines a new richness for his already skillful verse. Like his predecessors, Dobyns invents a second self, a kind of sad clown, whose zig-zag wanderings through life reflect issues both personal and universal; Dobyns's protagonist, Heart, frets over love, death, and dental work. In the center of these frank, witty anecdotes, Dobyns has placed a long poem (his most personal to date), the title lines of which suggest the whole book's meaning and preoccupation: "Oh, immobility, death's vast associate,/ you are the still center around which we jog." Like his maker, Heart clings to the hope that "when the world quits at last, he'll be like a bright bulb/ before the power is cut--still burning, still bright." This is Dobyns's finest volume to date--splendidly free, profound, and absorbing. Highly recommended.--Graham Christian, Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140589160
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/1/1999
  • Series: Penguin Poets Series
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 0.41 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

                     —Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
"Dream Song 4"—John Berryman

* * *

keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror ...

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
"The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"—Zbigniew Herbert

* * *

Palmström schwankt als wie ein Zweig im Wind ...
Als ihn Korf befragt, warum er schwanke,
meint er: weil ein lieblicher Gedanke,
wie ein Vogel, zärtlich und geschwind,
auf ein kleines ihn belastet habe—
schwanke er als wie ein Zweig im Wind,
schwingend noch von der willkommen Gabe ...
"Gleichnis"—Christian Morgenstern

* * *

All winter long, it seemed, a darkening
"Robinson at Home"—Weldon Kees


Heart sits on a stump in the backyard,
dog turds, crusted snow lie all around.
A window opens, a voice shouts: Come
on back, Heart! But Heart won't budge.
You see, there is adark place in the sky
despite the noon sun and lack of clouds.
A spot above the oak branch on the right,
like a dark splatter of spilled black paint.
If you stretched out your arm, your hand
could almost cover it. Heart can't explain it.
It feels like sadness but why is there sadness?
Heart sleeps okay, eats okay, moves his bowels just right.
It feels like despair but why is there despair?
Heart has pals, no big bills, and the roof doesn't leak.
As far as Heart can tell, life is going well.
The spot shimmers a bit and Heart thinks:
It's showing me that it knows I am here.
He imagines the dark spot leaving its home
in the morning—can sadness be pre-existing?
Could it fix like a tick on its victim's neck?
But perhaps this is someone else's sadness
and off on another street a gloomy stranger,
who feels often suicidal, feels okay today,
feels even optimistic. The oppressive weight
has not come back and he skips a few steps.
His sadness got lost, a not uncommon mistake.
Heart's muscular good cheer reasserts itself.
Although I feel terrible, he thinks, I don't really
fgeel terrible. I feel it for a stranger who today
gets a breather to let him rebuild a scrap of vigor.
Right now he feels down, but soon he'll come 'round.
Heart jumps from his stump. The day has just
begun but already he has done his good deed.
He'll eat a big breakfast, then make some calls.
In the evening may come a chance for Romance.
The black spot begins to fade. Soon it will be only
a pimple on Heaven's blue sky. Wasn't this inevitable?
The singing of formerly unheard birds grows audible.


Heart worries about the sound of his own heartbeat.
If it must be percussive, why can't it be musical like
a steel drum or kettle? Or if not orchestral, at least
more aggressive like a dragon's bellow in a dark tunnel.
No one has yet critiqued the sound of his heartbeat.
Were they being polite? Did they discuss with one another
the puny patter of his inferior ticker? In Heart's
newfound chagrin, he wants to buy a megaphone
so his heart can boom, or a synthesizer so it can sing
like a Bach chorale. Timpanies, trumpets, tom-toms—
shouldn't his heart blare like a quartet of trombones
to declare his arrival? How lavish have been his loves—
shouldn't his heartbeat reflect his ardent complexity?
Instead it beats out a dull monotone: thump, thump.
But perhaps, thinks Heart, I delude myself. Perhaps
my passions are quite insignificant and my sensitivity
no greater than another's. Heart chuckles at the folly
of such a thought. Over the horizon lie the Himalayas
and within him rise his emotions, while the disparity
in elevation is slight. Heart decides that his sedate beat
is only camouflage. If it bespoke his feelings exactly
it would mean constant earthquake with people leaping
from skyscraper windows and babies yowling all night.
If it truly reflected the cataract within him, gladhanders
would nag him for favors. He'd waste his passion on trifles.
Once again Heart is struck by nature's immense cunning:
the complexity of the butterfly's wing, the salamander's
artful coloration, and his own heartbeat: constant and sly.


Heart writes a letter to the ones who are missing—
those who moved away or slipped through the cracks.
He wants them to know he misses them even yet.
Some go back to earliest childhood. What might
they look like? He realizes he must have passed
a few on the street without a flicker of recognition,
one with a cane, one with a beard, one with a red beret.
It's been a long time, he writes to the first.
Then he crosses it out. Many things have happened.
He crosses this out as well. How do you speak
to the disappeared? He remembers how some
made him laugh, some cry, some roll up his eyes.
He tries to recollect the smooth texture of their cheeks.
Those who died, how long have they lain in silence?
Those who live, do they stroll the streets even still?
His list contains several hundred names, other names
he can't recall. He sees their faces in the smoke.
He wishes he could clasp each one by the hand.
I wonder if you'll remember who I am, he writes.
Then he rubs it out. Recently I've thought of you.
He rubs this out, too. At last he hits on the right note,
which he prints on hundreds of cards. Some he inserts
in bottles he drops in the sea, some he ties to pigeons' legs,
most are swept up in the dry eye of a passing tornado.
Far away a bike messenger snatches a card from the air.
Still here, it says, followed by an indecipherable scrawl.
Old What's-His-Name, the fellow thinks: Up to his tricks.


Heart feels sad. He's tired of being a heart
and wants to be a lung. A lung never lacks
a sister or brother. He wants to be a finger.
A finger always has a family. Or a spleen
which only feels anger and is never sad.
Sometimes Heart feels joyous, beats with vigor.
But then the old stories resurface again:
hardship, cruelty, the Human Condition.
A kidney never faces these problems alone.
The eyes in unison devise a third dimension.
Not by being solo do the ears create stereo.
But Heart must turn outward for comradeship,
to seek another heart, a journey fraught
with uncertainty. Like a revolving door—
such is falling in and out of love. And
the betrayals! Heart needs only to consult
his book of broken hearts to feel pessimistic.
But soon he puts on a fresh shirt and heads out
to the highway. He hangs a red valentine heart
from a stick so people will guess his business.
No matter that the sun is sinking and stormclouds
thicken. Approaching headlights glisten
on his newly pressed shirt and on his smile
which looks a trifle forced. Dust catches in his hair
and makes him cough. Why is Heart alone in the chest?
Because hope is an aspect of the single condition
and without hope, why move our feet? To see himself
as purely a fragment: such is Heart's obligation.
Let's quickly depart before we learn what happens.
Sometimes a car stops. Sometimes there is nothing.


Heart lies on a board with his hands crossed
on his chest. He is neither resting, nor sick.
He's working very hard. His brow knots up
as he stares at the dock. Heart is investigating
the nature of boredom. I'm bored, I'm bored—
everyday he hears this said, both by people
he admires and by some he doesn't. Being a heart,
he has no chance for boredom. He is beating
every moment of the day and night. He pumps
blood and falls in love—these are his endeavors.
He thinks boredom is like being dead while still
having the benefits of life. You can eat a peach,
you can watch the sunset, you can walk the dog—
none of which will interfere with your suffering.
Boredom isn't like sleep since boredom isn't restful.
It isn't like meditation because the mind is blank
with a touch of complaint. Heart tries to lie very still.
Outside he hears a robin scolding his neighbor's cat.
He hears a buzz saw and the bouncing of a basketball.
Sunlight through the glass, the smell of cut grass—
Heart grows bored studying the nature of boredom.
I'm a total flop, he thinks. Surely, if he were smarter,
he could dig to the root of boredom and find a cure.
He imagines the glad cries of the afflicted. They would
lift him onto their backs and beg him to make a speech.
Wherever he went, he'd be pointed out as the person
who defeated boredom. Medals would coat his chest.
Heart slaps his forehead: again his mind has wandered.
He tries to face his failure. Like a sparrow I can't fly.
Like a monkey I can't swing from branch to branch.
Just getting through the day takes all his wits.' He lacks
the knack to join the ranks of the ambulatory defunct.

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Table of Contents

Good Deeds 3
The Himalayas Within Him 5
Old What's-His-Name 6
Like a Revolving Door 7
Facing Failure 9
Goodbye To The Hands That Have Touched Him 11
The New Austerity 13
Ready And Waiting 15
The Nature Of Love 17
Valentine Mathematics 19
Love Is Elsewhere 21
Black Stitches Down The Middle 23
Trouble In Mind 25
Why Fool Around? 27
What Good Is Love Unless It's Aggressive? 29
The Dark And Turbulent Sea 31
Fighting Back 33
Great Job 35
One Good Turn Deserves Another 37
What Next? 39
Can Poetry Matter? 41
Flawed Language: Thought's Shadow 43
Lumberjack Shirts And Motorcycle Boots 45
I'm Muscle, I'm Brawn 47
Adrift In The Leafy Tranquillity 49
To Conceal The Piercing Light 51
Occupant In Permanent Transit 53
To Sleep The Sleep Of The Just 55
Wounds Without Pain 57
Thus He Endured 59
Oh, Immobility, Death's Vast Associate 63
No Tangos Tonight 85
The Malditos Make A Racket 87
To Exist In The Given Minute 89
Logo Of Fixed Bewilderment 91
The World's Master Plan 93
To Blow Your Enemy A Final Kiss 95
Corn To Pound To Make His Bread 98
Scattered Oaks In Full Leaf 100
The Light Is Dusky, The Shadows Long 102
Let's Peek At The Dental Work 104
Between Them Rose The Boner Of Contention 106
God's Poorer Particle, i.e., The Devil 108
That Stuff About A Better Place 110
The Sorry Fronds Of The Palm Trees 112
His Favorite Blue Cup 114
Why Is He Suddenly Paralyzed? 115
It's Not The Hookers Or Opium Dens 117
The Ersatz Metaphysic Of Commercialism 119
Dog-Tired Cannon Fodder Won't Salute 121
Until We Drool And Piss Ourselves 123
Hunting Dogs Pursue The Wounded Deer 125
The Minute Grit In Death's Undergarments 127
MacFleckna's Storefront Church 129
Their Tete-A-Tete Is Done 131
Death Lobs A Bosom Into The Field 133
Daytona Fresh And Indianapolis Immaculate 135
When Tubes Pierce Every Extremity 138
The Morgue Attendants Clutch Their Keys 140
Last Jumping Jacks 142
The World's Sidewalks And Daily Hoopla 144
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