The Resident Poet
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Photograph by Eva O'Leary for The New Yorker
In The Resident Poet, Katherine Dunn presents a contradiction; the narrator escapes on a romantic getaway weekend with her lover, but she finds him crude, unattractive, and even repulsive to the point that the getaway is anything but romantic.
Dunn’s story is explicit. It’s not erotic; the narrator is not at all aroused. She experiences the sexual acts in a detached, robotic way. She’s indifferent to the entire situation.
In the depths of my antiquated, chivalrous mind, I was offended by the idea that somebody could be so repulsed by someone, flirt in an empty, mechanical way, and still go through with it all. The narrator is young – in the prime of her romantic youth – but she throws it away. Why does she care so little? In fact, she make it an objective not to care; she doesn’t want romance to affect her at all.
This made me think that we go through these same motions in other aspects of our lives: work, school, politics. Often, we go through the movements without caring. We might study something that doesn’t interest us, to get a job that we find mediocre and unfulfilling, only to vote for officials we don’t believe in (but who are the worst of the evils available to us). If all these other parts of our lives can be this way, why would love be any different?
Sally waits in the pouring rain for her lover to pick her up and get out of town for the weekend. Her lover is also her professor – a poet who is a visiting lecturer at the university. He has a wife and children. When he picks her up, he asks her to hide on the floor of the car until they get out of the town. She consents.
They had never made physical contact before; their flirting had always been verbal. It’s clear that one thing is to flirt and imagine what someone is like, while another is to get up close and see them for who they really are.
His hand slides onto my knee and squeezes. I slip an arm over the back of the seat and run my fingers through his hair. It feels like a piece of cheap upholstery.
Sally obviously doesn’t like the poet for who he is. She had some idealized version of him, and when presented with the real thing, it’s not as great as it once seemed. The poet, however, considers this getaway – away from his wife and child and with a much younger woman – to be a fantasy of his. As part of the fantasy, he tries to get Sally to please him while driving. Sally sees it very differently.
I rummage dutifully in the wool-covered pudding. His belly is in the way. Where is the thing?
How could somebody have this running through their head and still continue? In this case, Sally stops. They still have an hour or so of driving and she doesn’t want to spend it that way. She thinks about the situation. (This is a long quote, but it summarizes the premise so well).
He, having been married twice and published a book of poems, having grown his beard and refused to mow his lawn, having succeeded in transforming a page of liberal newsprint into a chronic ailment, having assumed all these forms and wandered hatless in the rain hoping to be recognized and told who he is, must continue the outline he is sketching for himself, complete the design.
And I, Sally, having been mooed at by my peers, having skulked against walls and sat up nights searching through the ‘Reader’s Digest’ for jokes to insert into the conversations of the following day, having been for too long involuntarily good, have tapped into unsuspected energies in my current project. I have worked my way through reluctant soda jerks, potential painters, a good pianist who is studying to become a bad psychologist, a traveling daffodil salesman, and now, here, tonight…Maybe he’ll write a poem about me, or give me a passing grade in English. The painters did portraits of me, through they were just pastel sketches, convenient for one-night stands. I filed them in the left-hand drawer of my desk, separated by tissue paper. The pianist, a virgin until he appealed to me, wrote a tune and played it for me in the chapel. A bad poem would fit into the collection nicely.
This passage illustrates Sally’s perspective on love; she sees it as a necessary transaction between two people who will come away with their desires unfulfilled. It helps us understand why she can go through this grotesque getaway weekend and not care about it. It’s another addition to a long list of disastrous romances that have left her complacent – similar to what many of us do in other parts of our lives.
They arrive to a cheap motel. Sally isn’t upset. She’s indifferent.
He’s sprawled out on the sofa with his shoes and jacket off. A bottle of whiskey at his elbow, a glass of the slippery fluid rocking in his hand. I’ve never seen him without his coat on before. He looks fatter, unhealthy.
As things haven’t gone so great beforehand, we can’t imagine that they will go well when they get to the real thing.
I’d describe it all, but it’s just a pain. A drab fumbling like nothing so much as a poorly cooked meal that is so ostentatiously served that the diners are obliged to comment and erupt periodically with overenthusiastic “Oh, my”s and “Wonderful”s.
“Ah, poor Sally,” I mutter at my bleary eyes. Even when there’s no place left to be hurt, it seems there is something that can be diminished, whittled away.
I wasn’t sure if I liked The Resident Poet. At first, the premise felt hollow: a university student having an affair with her professor. I thought it was exaggerated and unnecessarily explicit.
Then, I realized this was Dunn’s intention. She wanted to grab us and say, hey, love isn’t necessarily this beautiful thing we fantasize about. We can think whatever we want about it, but in real life it’s difficult. We come into it with expectations – whether from friends, family, or the culture industry – and often leave empty-handed. By presenting the getaway weekend as this empty, mechanical thing, we get an entirely different view of it.
The Resident Poet is one of those stories where the components are better than the whole. Dunn’s writing is spectacular. The contradiction between the expectation of a romantic getaway and what Sally experiences is deeply clever. I didn’t come away thinking “what a great story,” but instead, “what a great writer.”
I was therefore sad to learn that Dunn passed away in 2016. I will certainly investigate her other works.