The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler
and I switch off the light.
On the table a tattered moth
shrugs its wings.
Nothing is ever quite
what we expect it to be.
Katherine Towler's deeply affecting and thoughtful portrait of Robert Dunn is subtitled "A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship". It's an accurate label, but one of the things that makes the book such a rewarding reading experience is that it's a memoir of struggles with place, solitude, and friendship — struggles that do not lead to a simple Hallmark card conclusion, but rather something far more complex. This is a story that could have been told superficially, sentimentally, and with cheap "messages" strewn like sugarcubes through its pages. Instead, it is a book that honors mysteries.
You are probably not familiar with the poetry of Robert Dunn, nor even his name, unless you happen to live or have lived in or around Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Even then, you may not have noticed him. He was Portsmouth's second poet laureate, and an important figure within the Portsmouth poetry scene from the late 1970s to his death in 2008. But he only published a handful of poems in literary journals, and his chapbooks were printed and distributed only locally — and when he sold them himself, he charged 1 cent. (Towler tells a story of trying to pay him more, which proved impossible.) He was insistently local, insistently uncommercial.
Dunn was also about as devoted to his writing as a person could be. When Towler met him in the early '90s, he lived in a single room in an old house, owned almost nothing, and made what little money he made from working part-time at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He seemed to live on cigarettes and coffee. When Towler first saw him around town, she, like probably many other people, thought he was homeless.
If a person could start a conversation with Dunn, which wasn't always easy, they would discover that he was very well read and eloquent. He was not, though, effusive, and he was deeply private. It was only late in his life, wracked with lung disease, that he opened up to anyone, and the person he seems to have opened up most to is Towler, though even then, she was able to learn very little about his past.
Towler got to know him because she was a neighbor, because she was intrigued by him, and because she was a writer on a different career track, with different ambitions. Dunn certainly wanted his poems to be read — he wouldn't have made chapbooks and sold them (even if only for a penny) if not — but he didn't want to subject himself to the quest-for-fame machine, he didn't want to do what everybody now says you must do if you want to have a successful writing career: become a "brand". He didn't bother with any sort of copyright, and Towler quotes a disclaimer from one of his books: "1983 and no nonsense about copyright. When I wrote these things they belonged to me. When you read them they belong to you. And perhaps one other." In 1999, he told a reporter from the Boston Globe, "It just feels kind of silly posting no trespassing signs on my poems."
His motto, written on slips of paper he occasionally gave to people, was "Minor poets have more fun."
When Towler met him, she was struggling with writing a novel. She had lived peripatetically for a while, but had recently gotten married. She wanted to be published far and wide, and in her most honest moments she probably would have admitted that she would have liked to sell millions of copies of her books, get a great movie deal or two, get interviewed by Terry Gross and Charlie Rose, win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and, heck, maybe even a Nobel. Success.
Once her first novel was published, Towler discovered what many people do in their first experiences with publication: It doesn't fill the hole. It is never enough. There are always other books selling better, getting more or better reviews, always other writers with more money and fame, and in American book culture these days, once a book is a month or two old, it's past its expiration date and rarely of much interest to booksellers, reviewers, or the public, because there's always something new, new, new to grab attention. You might as well sell your poems for a penny in Market Square.
By the time Towler's first novel is published, Portsmouth is deep in the process of gentrification. Not only have the local market, five-and-dime store, and hardware store been put out of business by rising rents and big box stores, but all seven of the downtown bookstores have disappeared. (Downtown is no longer bookstoreless. Bookstores, at least, can appeal to the gentrifiers, though it's still tough to be profitable with the cost of the rent what it is.) Towler gives a reading at a Barnes & Noble out at the mall, a perfect symbol of pretty much everything Robert Dunn had lived his life against: a mall, a chain bookstore. He attends the reading, though, and seems happy for Towler's success. He stands in line to get his book signed, and then says something that cuts Towler to the bone: "I'll let you get to your public."
As Robert turned away, leaving me to face a line of people waiting to have books signed, I felt that he had seen through me to the deep need for approval, the great strivings of ego, that lay at the heart of my desire to publish a book. Only by divorcing myself from the hunger for affirmation, his quip suggested, would I find what I truly desired. This is what he wanted for me, what he wanted for anyone who wrote.The Penny Poet of Portsmouth continues to think through these ideas, and to work through the contrast between Dunn's fierce localism and solitude and Towler's own conflicting desires, hopes, dreams, and fears. She begins in great admiration of Dunn, who seems to have sacrificed absolutely everything to his writing and has somehow overcome any yearning for fame or reward. In that sense, he seems saintly.
But at what cost? This question is always in the background as Dunn becomes ill and more dependent on other people. If he wants to stay alive, the sort of solitude he cultivated and cherished is no longer possible, leading to some difficult confrontations and tensions.
Towler does her best not to impose her own values on Dunn's life, but she can't help wondering what it would be like to live as Dunn does. Though she sympathizes with him, and shares some of his ideals, she's no ascetic. She can't help but think of Dunn as lonely, since she would be, especially in illness. She cherishes her husband, she likes the house they buy together, she enjoys (at least sometimes) traveling to readings and leading writing workshops.
Dunn's life, as Towler presents it at least, shows the inadequacy of the question, "Are you happy?" In illness, Dunn was obviously not comfortable, and when he couldn't be at home, he was often not content. But happiness is a fleeting thing, not a state of being. Even if you believe that happiness is something that can be captured for more than a moment, there's no reason to think that, except for illness, Robert Dunn was unhappy. He sculpted a life for himself that was, it seems, quite close to whatever life he might have desired having. I doubt having a life partner of some sort would have led to more moments of happiness for him, as Towler wonders at one point. The accommodations and annoyances of having another person around a lot of the time are insufferable for someone inclined toward solitude. Was this the case for Dunn? It's difficult to know, because he was difficult to know. Towler is remarkably restrained, I think, in not trying to impose her own pleasures on Dunn — she doesn't ever record saying to him what the partnered often say to the unpartnered, "Wouldn't you be happy with someone else in your life?" (I often think partnered people work a bit too hard to justify their own life choices, as if the presence of other types of lives are somehow an indictment of their own.) But even still, it does seem to be one of the more unbridgeable gulfs between types of people: the contentedly partnered seem as terrified of being unpartnered as the contentedly unpartnered are of being partnered, and so one looks on the other's life as a nightmare.
What The Penny Poet of Portsmouth shows is the necessity of community. Robert Dunn was, for many reasons, lucky that he lived in Portsmouth when he did, because there was a real community of writers and people interested in writing and reading, and these people looked out for each other. Before the rents went whacko, it was possible to live in Portsmouth if you weren't rich. This is why the word place in Towler's subtitle is so important. The book is not only a portrait of Robert Dunn, but a chronicle of the city that allowed him to be Robert Dunn. Towler is careful to chronicle the details of the place and community, both its people and its institutions. She shows the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies of illness, and without being heavy-handed she depicts the ways that poverty is perceived in a place as ruggedly individualistic as New Hampshire — once she gets to know Robert Dunn, she also gets to see, feel, and struggle against the assumptions people who don't know him make. (In some of what she described him experiencing from nurses, doctors, and pharmacists, I couldn't help but think of my father, who did not have health insurance and who died of congestive heart failure. After he had a heart attack, he felt patronized and dismissed by hospitals that knew he couldn't pay his bills. Whether the hospital employees themselves actually felt this way, I don't know, but he perceived it deeply, and it contributed to his determination never to see another doctor or hospital. I'll forever remember the way his voice sounded when he told me, briefly, of this: the shattered pride, the humiliation, the rage all fraying his words.)
In its attention to the details of community — and a number of other ways — The Penny Poet of Portsmouth makes a perfect companion to Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections, another story of a poet, though in a very different environment. Arnold Hawley in Delany's novel is far less content than Robert Dunn in Towler's memoir, but their commitments are similar. Arnold is more seduced by the desire for fame and success than Dunn seems to have been, and so his personality is perhaps a bit more like Towler's, but without her relative success in everyday living. Having known Dunn, Towler is perhaps more capable of imagining Dunn as content in his life than Delany is quite able to imagine Arnold content — I've sometimes wondered whether Arnold is so tormented by his life because Delany himself would be tormented by that life, a life that is the opposite, in nearly every way, of his own. No matter. The books have much to say to (and with) each other.
There is much in Towler's memoir that is moving. She takes her time and doesn't rush the story. At first, I thought perhaps her pacing was unnecessarily slow, perhaps padding out what was a thin tale. I was wrong, though, because Towler is up to many things in the book, and needs her portrait of the place and person to be built carefully for her ideas and concerns to have resonance and real meaning. It's a tale of growing into knowledge and into something like intimacy, but also, at the same time, of coming to terms with unsolveable mysteries and uncrossable borders.
By the time I got to the fragmentary biography Towler offers as an appendix, those few pages were the most powerful of the book for me, because they show just how much we can't know. (I suppose the power was also one of some sort of personal recognition: Robert Dunn grew up only a dozen or so miles from where I grew up. The soil of his early years is as familiar to me as any other place on Earth. He was a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where I finished my undergraduate degree and am now working on a Ph.D. I've only spent occasional time in Portsmouth, though enough over the decades to have seen some of the changes Towler writes about.) Primed by all the rest of Towler's story, it was this paragraph that most deeply affected me:
He went south in the summer of 1965 with the civil rights movement with a small group of Episcopalians from New Hampshire. Jonathan Daniels, who was shot and killed as he protected a young African-American woman attempting to enter a store in Hayneville, Alabama, had gone down ahead of the group. Robert would not talk about this experience, though others and I asked him about it directly. He did say once that he had known Daniels.Had Towler rushed her story more, the resonances and mysteries in that paragraph wouldn't have been nearly as affecting. (It helps if you already know the story of Daniels, I suppose.)
The book ends with a delightful collection of what we might call "Robert Dunn's wit and wisdom", taken from various interviews and profiles in local papers that Dunn had stuck in a folder labeled "Vanity". Of the civil rights movement, he told Clare Kittredge of the Boston Globe in 1999: "We had our hearts thoroughly broken."
Let's end these musings with what mattered most to Robert Dunn, though: the poetry. His poems remind me of Frank O'Hara (whom he discusses with Towler) and Samuel Menashe. They're colloquial and compressed, full of surprises. Thanks to Towler's book, I expect, Dunn's selected poems have finally been collected in One of Us Is Lost, and a few are reprinted in The Penny Poet. Here's one that seems particularly appropriate:
They've taken away the pigeon lady,
who used to scatter breadcrumbs from an old
brown hand and then do a little pigeon dance,
right there on the sidewalk, with a flashing
of purple socks. To the scandal of the
neighborhood. This is no world for pigeon
There's a certain wild gentleness in
this world that holds it all together. And
there's a certain tame brutality that just
naturally tends to ruin and scatteration and
nothing left over. Between them it's a very
near thing. This is no world without pigeon
Now world, I know you're almost
uglied out, but . . . just think! Try to
remember: What have you done with the