We’ve just passed the 98th anniversary of the birth of Alan Dugan, who, when asked “What does it mean to be a Marxist poet today?” in a 1981 interview, says this:
Well, just to believe that economic relations are basic to human life. In that regard there’s no difference between Marx and The Wall Street Journal but the business of thinking dialectically in terms of a three-term situation rather than a two-term situation is interesting. In a two-term situation you answer a question, yes or no; dialectically, you say this happens, then the opposite happens, and there is a resolution. Thesis, antithesis, and nostalgia or resolution.
The interviewer, Donald Heines, then asks Dugan for clarification: “Nostalgia or resolution?” “Right,” says Dugan. “Well, then, does the poem end?,” asks Heines. “Some poems do,” replies Dugan, “some don't.”1
At no point in the conversation does either man mention that in 1961 Dugan published a poem titled “Thesis, Antithesis, and Nostalgia,” a discussion of which seems warranted:
Not even dried-up leaves,
skidding like iceboats on
their points down winter streets, can scratch the surface of
a child’s summer and its wealth:
a stagnant calm that seemed
as if it must go on and on
outside of cyclical variety
the way, at child-height on a wall,
a brick named “Ann”
by someone’s piece of chalk
still loves the one named “Al”
although the street is vacant
and the writer and the named are gone.2
Presaging Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrated Summer” (“Do you remember when the first snowfall fell? Was that your celebrated summer?”) the poem is a quasi-sonnet composed of a single sentence, and its initial thesis is a claim about a potentially evocative everyday event—“dried-up leaves” being blown “down winter streets”—and its inability to penetrate a child’s fixation on “summer and its wealth.”3
This first proposition contains a metaphor that compares “skidding” leaves to “iceboats,” vehicles that “scratch the surface” of what they traverse, though the leaves in the poem neither leave scratches on the street nor transport the child out of his warm reverie and into the cold present. Unlike the ice under an iceboat’s runners, then, his dream of summer is impervious to marking.
“[S]ummer and its wealth” are described as “a stagnant calm” that seems to “go on and on / outside of cyclical variety,” which leads to the poem’s antithesis, a metaphor for summer’s timelessness that involves forsaken marks. The ninth line is a volta of sorts, as the image of “streets” gives way to a “way” and looking and listening give way to reading. The permanence of the child’s memory of summer is now compared to the manner in which love, evoked by chalk on a wall, achieves a kind of permanence despite the fact that “the writer and the named are gone,” “gone” being a contracted echo of “go on and on” in line seven.
Before the speaker acknowledges “the writer and the named,” though, he goes about his reading in an oddly literal way, claiming that the bricks are what’s named and in love and that the chalk is what does the naming. Osip Mandelstam once called his own writing “nostalgia for world culture,” but these lines of Dugan’s might be thought of as nostalgia for the localized word, a somewhat preposterous fixation on a here and a now. A child’s preoccupation with “summer and its wealth” has gone from being a surface that can’t be scratched to being like a comic scene of reading in which a reader attempts to reorient the written in the face of its hypothetical obsolescence.
In my mind’s eye, I see something like “Ann+Al” in a heart-shaped chalk outline, and, when put together, these names form the word “annal,” a record of the events of a particular year and therefore a document that stops short of the “cyclical.” And yet the child’s persistent nostalgia—helped along by the resonance of “al” in “wall” and “chalk”—also encourages me to go back in text and time, a move that pronounces the poem’s human origin, as “Al” followed by “Ann” is “Alan.”
But what to make of “Al” being short for “Alan”? With marks and scratches on the brain, I read this “nick”-name as a nod to coincidence, as in both chance and correlation; an at-once quotidian and miraculous distraction from the hard fact that names in chalk on bricks in a “vacant” street would have no reader, a fact that would ask me, impossibly, to un-read what I’ve just read.
Long live Al Dugan, Alan Dugan is dead.
Logic would stop some poems in their tracks, unmake their marks, but “Thesis, Antithesis, and Nostalgia” is forever, its dual syntheses, “annal” and “Alan,” keeping it in constant oscillation between its bygone author’s place in history and another place that’s somehow outside of it.
i.m. Alan Dugan (February 12, 1923-September 3, 2003)
1 Donald Heines and Alan Dugan, “A Conversation with Alan Dugan,” The Massachusetts Review, 22, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 287. All quotations from this interview appear on this page.
2 Alan Dugan, Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001), 58.
3 Hüsker Dü, “Celebrated Summer,” track 6 on New Day Rising, SST Records, 1985, compact disc.