Portrait of the poet as myth-maker

“At the Feeder,” from Broken Pearls

Hummingbirds hover to sip. …
Leaves, low in the thicket, shine.
How long is long,
suspended in feeding time?
Ruby Throats dart and are gone.
Coins will cover my eyes
until you return.

— Ann Dunn

As I sit down at my desk to write about Ann Dunn’s new book, I can’t help but wonder what the author herself will have accomplished by the time I finish.

During the time it takes to compose a single measly article about her, will Dunn have, say, created a dance cycle that definitively challenges and remolds traditional Buddhist views of femininity? Will she have uncovered the true identity of Shakespeare? Undertaken, written and defended a dissertation on global economics? Trotted off to New York City to choreograph said dissertation at Lincoln Center?

Exaggeration? Perhaps. But what’s certain is that this Asheville icon seems to operate at light speed, sustaining a level of accomplishment that elicits helpless comments from bystanders along the lines of, “I don’t know how she does it.”

Dunn, the owner and director of Fletcher School of Dance and a professor of humanities at UNCA, has completed doctoral work in the literature of the Italian and English Renaissance. She serves on the board of countless arts organizations. She’s the single mother of five children, ages 37 to 11, and the grandmother of four. She is a wry and endearing conversationalist, a head-turner and a mean Hula-Hooper.

And somewhere in there, she also finds time to be a poet. But if you’re thinking, “Who doesn’t have time to write a couple poems now and then?”, then you clearly haven’t met Dunn. Other people’s hobbies are her life’s mission.

At a recent reading at Malaprop’s, Dunn announced she would read from a just-completed, still unpublished project. She opened a massive file roughly the dimensions of a rather involved tax document and announced: “I’ve rewritten the Psalms to be from a woman’s perspective.”

It may not be surprising, then, that Dunn’s latest book of poems, Broken Pearls: A Cycle for the Reconstruction of Chastity (Urthona Press, 2003), comes with a cultural pedigree and a flawless intellectual girding. Yet what may intrigue the reader more is the haunting beauty and often stunning emotional pitch that animates this gorgeous book of poems.

“This book began with the Vermeer exhibit at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C.,” Dunn writes in the preface.

In painting after painting, she noticed the pearls around the necks of the women subjects, a symbol of their purity. Something about the sheer repetition of the image struck Dunn’s imagination.

From the nation’s capital, she traveled to New York City, scouring the Frick and Metropolitan museums for images of pearls. She found an ocean of them, their meaning always strictly encoded: An intact string of pearls enshrined the neck of the Virgin. And Magdalene’s pearls? “Broken or spilled on the floor,” she writes.

“I remembered the add-a-pearl necklaces given to infant girls when I was young,” Dunn continues. “I contemplated Blake’s Innocence — Experience — Experienced Innocence cycle in terms of pearls broken and restrung. I meditated on the God/human-female story so prevalent in myth — the great ‘broken pearl’ moment of many histories, when a god visits and impregnates a virgin.”

As Dunn points out, when a god impregnates a woman in mythology, we rarely hear from her after the mating. She disappears — poof! — from the story.

Broken Pearls is concerned with what happens before and after that “poof!”

The poems chronicle a great love affair — one between a woman and God.

Four Marys — each representing a different stage of a woman’s life — give voice. As Dunn portrays it, God is the ultimate unavailable man (after all, He’s fairly busy). And as we meet our different Marys, we gain a different perspective on what this love affair might mean to a woman — from the young Marian, who’s filled with longing and uncertainty; to Mara, the new mother, who reserves her passion for her children; to the heartbroken Magdalene; and finally, to Mary, the older, wiser mistress of the later years.

The poems’ considerable power derives from the way the mythic resonates with everyday emotions: You don’t need to have slept with a god to have experienced desire and heartbreak — a man who merely thinks he’s a god can be just as instructive.

During a recent interview, Dunn discussed how popular myths and stories still have an ability to move a contemporary audience.

“When I read myths I hear the woman’s voice even though she’s not speaking,” Dunn said. “I don’t know if that sounds strange. But as I’m reading a myth about Narcissus, I hear Echo — no pun intended.

“I hear her side of the story, and what she would say if she could speak.”

As human beings, she believes, we haven’t changed much since these stories were first created.

And speaking of supernatural feats, Dunn is more than willing to share her own secret of perpetual motion. Asked how she finds the time to make poetry a vocation, she responds, “I get up real early in the morning and I go to bed real early at night. That’s the only way I can do it.”

The process involves reading before bed, and then waking up at 4:30 or so to write before Dunn’s youngest daughter wakes up for school. The before-bedtime reading-and-thinking session is essential, though.

“This is going to sound awful, but that way I can work while I’m asleep,” she admits. “My mind sort of synthesizes some of this stuff [I’ve been thinking about] and is ready in the morning to spit something cool up from the depths.”

So finally, it’s clear how Ann Dunn does all she does: She works while she sleeps.

And just imagine what she’s achieved while you’ve been reading this article about her.

April is National Poetry Month. Ann Dunn’s Broken Pearls is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore.

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