Alan Dugan, a remarkable but somewhat overlooked poet, probably best known for (and he’d hate that I’m mentioning it) his marriage poem, “LOVE SONG: I AND THOU,” has perhaps saved his best poem for last. His posthumous collection, Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, closes with perhaps the most subtle poem about death that I’ve ever read. It’s so subtle that I didn’t even begin to see the intricacies at play until the third or fourth time I’d read the poem.
So let me save you some leg-work. Read “CLOSING TIME AT THE SECOND AVENUE DELI” with the idea that the speaker knows he’s nearing the end of his life. Think about the different containers in the poem, the ketchup bottles, the to-go container for the stew, the speaker and his wife–the body as container–inside the deli, inside the taxi. Look at the setting and the overarching narrative–the time of day, the situation they find themselves at the end w/ the leaking stew), the concept of balance and emptiness, and the way the speaker cuts off his thinking again and again with “no,” which serves as a corrective preventing the speaker from overly aggrandizing the moment, or inflating its importance, which keeps both reader and speaker rooted firmly in a specific moment:
Do you see how it can easily read as a short little anecdote about something an elderly man noticed as he and his wife were leaving dinner. Not all that shocking, not the kind of thing you’d ever see a movie trailer for. But Dugan’s subtlety here, the background elements so expertly threaded into the poem they don’t draw attention in a flashy or maudlin way, offers the kind of poem that only deepens and darkens with each reading.
The tone of the speaker at the opening of the poem builds from an almost hushed, delicate whisper, to a quick and decisive mocking of that impulse. The question “like shall I say / a priest blessing the balance” provides the speaker for that window to undermine the voice from before. The voice saying no proves insistent, determined to keep the lofty voice from drifting too far from reality, from making everything he notices precious enough to crack.
This poem about death never dips into the language of mortality. But when you re-read, phrases like “balances out,” or “the store goes dark,” or “this ride,” or “this is the time / to turn out the lights,” or even the similes early in the poem with the priest and the rabbi, which try to attribute the scene with an air of the sacred (though the voice won’t allow itself), they take on more resonance. We see the interrupting voice “The manager is not like,” which gives us an important tool for reading this poem. The voice struggles to pin down the scene not only without aggrandizing, or dipping into the dreaded terrain of preciousness, but the voice also wants to avoid referent. Things are not like other things; people are not like other people–they are like themselves. The tension between the speaker’s two impulses here enacts yet another display of balance to add to the ketchup bottles, but more importantly we witness a speaker who understands the inevitability and proximity of death yet refuses to dwell.
Toward the end of the poem, we have yet one final question from our speaker, one last “shall I say,” which reads literally about the stew-container, but also figuratively about the body, how it’s a container which will soon no longer be able to contain “the thing” (the person) contained. Dugan would’ve effectively killed this poem if he had been more direct, and that balance, that sharp and swerving, both internal and external, bob and weave seems to be what’s holding everything in place. Our speaker’s body might be at the point where it “can / not contain the thing contained anymore,” but as we learned from earlier in the poem with the ketchup bottles as metaphor–this is about the balance “of emptiness, of fullness perfectly contained.”
The poem’s final line veers toward the unexpected, which resonates in comedic and severe fashion. Like any good poem about balance, it can’t end too lopsided. Perhaps I love this poem because it works so hard against artifice–funny that it actually requires a lot of artifice to achieve that effect. The image of the soup spilling in the floorboards of the taxi at the end of the poem suggests everything we know: that our human containers only last for so long, & that we pay, in some way or another, for what we experience.
So thanks, Alan, for the poems. For the balance. For both the fullness and the emptiness. For going in front of us and paying for this ride.
Frank Stanford fans might appreciate this 1974 letter Dugan wrote in defense of Stanford’s submission of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You to the Walt Whitman Award competition, which was rejected on the basis that it was “significantly longer than 100 pages”:
It’s inspiring to see Dugan, who, in 1961, won not just the Yale Younger Series Prize and the National Book Award, but the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection, Poems, writing in defense of a younger, less established poet. More on Frank Stanford soon.