Many of Stephen Dobyns’ poems evoke black humor with a tantalizing image. Dobyns’ poem “Tenderly” places the reader in a world of comic absurdity where a man attempts castration with a dull knife. Even though the image is arresting and unpoetic, Dobyns exhibits a masterful control and balance of the imagery and language in “Tenderly”. This essay will focus on Dobyns’ poetics to illustrate how he uses syntax and a central image to advance and withhold the narrative to achieve central meaning to the poem.
The first sentence of “Tenderly” is long and carefully structured. The structural components of this sentence are the correlative conjunctions that represent two negatives and an implicit positive: “It’s not a fancy restaurant, nor is it\a dump” (lines 1-2). These two negative extremes force the reader to infer a positive; the restaurant is somewhere between the upper and lower-class stratums. The second component is the parallel structure that balances out the comical list: “a man leaps onto his tabletop,” and “whips out his prick”; however, the structure is weakened when the absurdity of the entire image is introduced: “and begins sawing at it/ with a butter knife” (3-5). The image of a man engaging in self-mutilating tendencies in public creates a general association of chaos. Dobyns uses the structural components to keep a coherent order and balance the delivery of the image and setup of the scene.
Enjambment also plays an important role in the structure of the first stanza. The most prominent example is the first to second stanza enjambment. It delays the small prepositional phrase “with a butter knife”(5). Because this portion of the image is delayed, it allows readers to reach the pinnacle of absurdity when readers realize the mans attempt is in vain. Enjambment also keeps the narrative moving because there is no punctuation to stop the reader at the end of the line. The stanza enjambment allows a disconnectedness to manifest itself between the penis and the knife, which may suggest the two are not mutually exclusive and the contrast between flesh and metal.
No motivation is presented for the character except “I can’t stand it/ anymore! he shouts” (5-6). The emotional outburst is appropriate within the context, and the short line illustrates the violent passion. The grammatical structure of the line uses no quotation marks nor italics to set it apart. Italics and quotation marks might draw too much attention to the line. Dobyns may be suggesting this man is insignificant: a name is never mentioned for this man, and his destructive actions define him as futile. The small “h” in “he” is an illustration of the man’s smallness.
The chaotic element is lost the moment the waiters extradite the man outside before he draws blood. In the course of nine lines, the narrator has shocked the reader with the central image and brought the scene back to normality. The structure of the two sentences that contain the restoration of normality are similar in structure: “before he draws blood and hustle him out back. Soon the diners return/ to their fillet and slices of duck”(7-9). The coordinating conjunction “and” in both lines illustrates a balance that coincides with the restoration that is taking place.
Order is restored, and the narrator begins his abstractions on human nature. “How peculiar, each, in some fashion, articulates./ Consider how the world implants a picture in our brains” (9-12). The articulation of these lines is peculiar in itself. The commas draw specific attention to the separation of the words and phrases. They slow the sentence down. Commas allow the reader to mull over the statement before the command is given. After the command the central image is brought back and the narrator says “for each, forever after, the image pops up/ a thousand times” (14-15). This exemplifies that the narrator is generalizing about the influence of this image or is omniscient. Another statement is juxtaposed against the image: “I once saw the oddest thing--” (15). It is trite, and validity is added to this line when a rhetorical question about human nature is attached: “how often does each announce this fact?” (16). The sentence structure is unique. It’s the first of the three dashed sentences. The dash keeps the reader suspended at the end of the line. It is the most appropriate punctuation mark because it is not as final as a period or colon or semicolon. The reader can linger on the statement and the strange episode.
In stanza five, the narrator continues suggesting the diners will recall the central image at unconventional times in their lives. The narrator concludes that “so they are linked as a family is linked--through a single portrait” (23-24). Because this is the only simile in the poem, stress is placed on it; however, the conclusion word-- “so”--and the linking dash draw attention to themselves and illustrate the narrator’s conclusion of the central image and abstractions. The link or connection is what the narrator is trying to get readers to realize. Even the dash in the sentence creates a link from the simile to another image. The use of connection is apparent in other Dobyns’ poems too. “Bowlers Anonymous”, for example, uses the bowling alley to bring together mismatched people with strange desires:
Here comes the woman who wears the plastic prick
hooked to a string around her waist, the man who
puts girls’ panties like a beanie on his head,
the chicken molester, the lady who likes Great Danes,
the boy who likes sheep, the old fellow who likes
to watch turkeys dance on the top of a hot stove,
the bicycle-seat sniffer, grasshopper muncher,
the bubbles-in-the-bath biter--they all meet
each night at midnight and, oh lord, they bowl. (1-9)
Even though these characters have varying desires, they manage to form a connection at the bowling alley, and the absurdist metaphor for the connection tries “to jar the reader off his or her pedestal of complacency” (Dobyns, n. pag.).
“Tenderly” suggests a similar idea about connection in a different way. In “Bowlers” the actions of the peoples’ desires are absurd, and the structure of the long sentence creates an element of suspense and surprise. In “Tenderly” the central image is comic and violent, and the structural words balance out the comic and the violent. However, in both these poems Dobyns manages an optimum balance when pushing the comic language, abstractions, and image in view. For instance, lines 9-20 in “Tenderly” juxtapose the central image with abstraction. Language engages in this balance, too. The profane language, “prick” and “dick”, the violent language “whips”, “sawing”, “strangling” elicit profound emotional responses, driving the narrative forward until readers reach the crux of the poem where the central image is described in grotesque detail: “the man’s wobbly perch on the white tablecloth/ his open pants and strangled red chunk of flesh” (21-22). This sentence is the longest, and it pushes the central image one step further with the gory detail. The narrator suggests the image becomes a “symbol” for the diners as to what will happen when each has had enough “of slipping over the edge, of being whipped/ about the chops by the finicky world, and of reacting/ with a rash mutiny against the tyranny of desire” (23-26). The parallel structure of the prepositions causes a repetitive, rhythmical nature that drives the lines forward. Also, the end-stopped line takes readers out of the abstraction and allows them to start a fresh line about the future of the man.
When the narrator writes about the man’s future, he still uses extremes. For instance, when the man is “tossed out back\ and left to rethink his case among the trash cans” the narrator equates the man to a sack of garbage that is tossed in the trash. Dark comedy is present in these lines.
In the final stanzas, comic elements do not fail when the narrator suggests once again that the diners who saw the central image will look back to that day and realize the tortured individual who tried castration was far worse off than they could ever be. The comic is achieved with perverse language and alliteration: when “one feels the strap begin to slip, he or she thinks/ of the nut dancing with his dick on the tabletop/ and trudges on. At least life has spared me this,/ they think” (32-35). Sound and language create a little humor out of a dire situation. The final bit of the narrator’s brutal, comic absurdity ends in the last sentence, which is the second longest and somewhat unique in form. The dashes isolate the“retired banker” as the one person who “hopes against hope that the lunatic/ is parked on a topless foreign beach with a beauty/ clasped in his loving arms, breathing heavily, Oh,/ darling, touch me there, tenderly, one more time! (37-40). A banker is used to suggest the traditional person’s happy ending: the man at some exotic place with a woman. Language denotes that it is a woman because the locale is a “topless foreign beach” (38). Men don’t wear tops on beaches.
Finally, there is the humor of the title. The word tenderly has many meanings in the poem. It first stands for the man’s futile attempts at castration, but in the last line the word becomes a representation of the man touching tender spots on the woman. The structure of the sentence suggests this view because the phrases “clasped in/ his loving arms, breathing heavily” are modifying “beauty” (38-39). Dobyns also maximizes the meaning of tenderly in the first stanza because the castrator exhibits a severe lack of tenderness when he tries dismembering himself, and tenderly can suggest the tender state of the man’s member. As a result, “Tenderly” illustrates the careful construction Dobyns uses in his poetics, not only through language but through structure too.
Dobyns, Stephen. “Bowlers Anonymous.” Cemetery Nights. New York: Penguin, 1987
Dobyns, Stephen. Interview by Jim Harrison et al. The Aslop Review. http://www.alsopreview.com/aside/dobyns/
Dobyns, Stephen. “Tenderly.” Contemporary American Poetry. 7th ed. Ed. A. Poulin, Jr. Houghton Mifflin: Boston, 2001. 115.