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Stephen Dobyns' "How to Like It"

Updated on September 25, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Stephen Dobyns

Source

How to Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let's pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn't been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let's go down to the diner and sniff
people's legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man's mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let's go to sleep. Let's lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he'll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let's just go back inside.
Let's not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich.
Let's make the tallest sandwich anyone's ever seen.
And that's what they do and that's where the man's
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

Dobyns reading his poem, "How to Like it" at 2:40 with intro by Thomas Lux

Literary Strategy

The fascinating and masterful strategy of this poem employs the personification technique of a talking dog in order to dramatize the man's baser instincts inculcated in the physical body.

Commentary

Stephen Dobyns' poem, "How to Like It," dramatizes the mental process of an aging man whose doubts and concerns translate into many questions, including, "Why is it all so difficult?"

First Movement: "These are the first days of fall. The wind"

Stephen Dobyns' "How to Like It" is set in the melancholy of the first days of fall, the waning of the year, symbolizing the waning of a man's own life. The autumn-of-life texture is furthered by the fact that the time of day is evening, when "smells of roads still to be traveled" come born by "[t]he wind."

The sound of remaining stationary is signified by "the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns." These implications herald restlessness, making the individual want to jump in his car and keep on driving.

Second Movement: "A man and a dog descend their front steps"

The omniscient speaker then introduces the two main actors in his little drama, a man and a dog; the dog speaks, "Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk. / Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find." The speaker confides that this is a dog's way of "deal[ing] with the prospect of change."

The fascinating and masterful strategy of this poem employs the personification technique of a talking dog in order to dramatize the man's baser instincts inculcated in the physical body. The man never speaks, but through his silence as the dog speaks, the man's thoughts are made clear while being represented in a most colorful manner.

The dog expresses the wish to get "crazy drunk." Alongside that base wish, the man "is struck / by the oppressiveness of his past." Memories from the man's past have become as lodged in his memory hole as he is settled in a neighborhood with a wife—and a dog.

The man feels that he is able to "see faces / caught up among the dark places in the trees." As the man ruminates on his seemingly solid memory images, the dog with animal certitude pipes up: "Let's pick up some girls and just / rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere."

Third Movement: "Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud"

The man glimpsing the clouds rushing across the moon thinks of a movie in which someone is "leaving on a journey." Noticing the road heading north from his neighborhood, he thinks of driving his car and the dusty smell of the heater after being unused all summer.

Even in the man's mind, he wavers about what he would actually prefer to do, while the dog suggests they "go down to the diner and sniff / peoples legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers." But the man just thinks of the emptiness and darkness of the road. Even if he decided to take that journey, he suspects that he would not find what he is looking for.

Fourth Movement: "Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder"

Still, in his mind the man continues on with that journey but notices, "the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights, / shine like small cautions against the night." By now, the dog just wants to lie down and sleep with his tail over his nose. But the man insists that he wants to continue driving, "crossing / one state line after another, and never stop / until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror."

Fifth Movement: "Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before"

The man thinks that after a short rest from driving, he will continue and by sundown be rewarded by arriving at a city entirely new to him. But the dog, dog-tired by now with all the traveling fantasy, urges the man to go into their house and not do anything tonight, and that is what they do.

But the man still wonders, "How is it possible to want so many things / and still want nothing?" Because of his frustration with his inability to answer his own questions, he just wants to go to sleep and also repeatedly bang his head into the wall, as he wonders, "Why is it all so difficult?"

Sixth Movement: "But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich"

The dog wants to "make the tallest sandwich anyones ever seen." As the man gathers his tall-sandwich fixins, his wife discovers him with his head stuck in the refrigerator just blindly staring.

But the man is not just looking for food; he is peering as if he could discover satisfactory answers to his nagging questions—answers that might reveal to him, "why you get up in the morning / and how it is possible to sleep at night, / answers to what comes next and how to like it."

The man will continue to struggle for those answers, of course, but the last phrase, "how to like it"—that is, how to find attractive and even look forward to that struggle from which there is no escape will continue to evade him. He is fairly certain of that much.

This poem appeared in The Cortland Review, Issue 26.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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