‘The Last Hours’ a poem by Stephen Dunn

The ‘Friday poem’ this week is ‘Last Hours’ from the Pulitzer Prize winning collection, ‘Different Hours’ by Stephen Dunn. The poem is set in an office in 1964 at nineteen minutes to five.

NPR editor Barrie Hardymon selected her interview with the poet as a favorite in 2014. “This was one of these moments where, you know, he writes this very accessible poetry – and I mean that not to damn it with faint praise. You are still in the chapel of language that poetry is, but it is so – it still feels like a friend is whispering in your year very wise things. And he had that quality about him.”

The interview began with “how he has used poetry in his own life”.

“What good literature has always done is give me the language with the occasion – a lot of times not, of course. But I think the poems that matter to me are the ones that speak to that which cannot easily be said.”

“I was not a particularly good student, and I was a pretty good basketball player. I’ve written an essay called “Basketball And Poetry,” in which I try not to push the metaphor too far. But one of the points that I make in the essay is the similarity between poetry and basketball is the chance to be better than yourself, to transcend yourself, if you’re hot that day. And that happens in writing in our best moments, where we find ourselves saying what we didn’t know we knew or couldn’t have said in any other circumstance. Those are the moments in poetry I live for now.”

Does our ‘work place’ also gives us a chance to be better than ourselves? Enter ‘the chapel of language’ in the Friday poem, The Last Hours.

The Last Hours

There’s some innocence left,
and these are the last hours of an empty afternoon
at the office, and there’s the clock
on the wall, and my friend Frank
in the adjacent cubicle selling himself
on the phone.
I’m twenty-five, on the shaky
ladder up, my father’s son, corporate,
clean-shaven, and I know only what I don’t want,
which is almost everything I have.
A meeting ends.
Men in serious suits, intelligent men
who’ve been thinking hard about marketing snacks,
move back now to their window offices, worried
or proud. The big boss, Horace,
had called them in to approve this, reject that–
the big boss, a first-name, how’s-your-family
kind of assassin, who likes me.
It’s 1964.
The sixties haven’t begun yet. Cuba is a larger name
than Vietnam. The Soviets are behind
everything that could be wrong. Where I sit
it’s exactly nineteen minutes to five. My phone rings.
Horace would like me to stop in
before I leave. Stop in. Code words,
leisurely words, that mean now.
Would I be willing
to take on this? Would X’s office, who by the way
is no longer with us, be satisfactory?
About money, will this be enough?
I smile, I say yes and yes and yes,
but–I don’t know from what calm place
this comes–I’m translating
his beneficence into a lifetime, a life
of selling snacks, talking snack strategy,
thinking snack thoughts.
On the elevator down
it’s a small knot, I’d like to say, of joy.
That’s how I tell it now, here in the future,
the fear long gone.
By the time I reach the subway it’s grown,
it’s outsized, an attitude finally come round,
and I say it quietly to myself, I quit,
and keep saying it, knowing I will say it, sure
of nothing else but.

Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours (W.W. Norton)

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