Cover image for Pallbearers envying the one who rides
Pallbearers envying the one who rides
Dobyns, Stephen, 1941-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Penguin Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
ix, 149 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
PS3554.O2 P35 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



. . . Why is Heart alone in the chest? Because hope is an aspect of the single condition and without hope, why move our feet? To see himself as purely a fragment: such is Heart's obligation. Let's quickly depart before we learn what happens. Sometimes a car stops. Sometimes there is nothing. --from "Like a Revolving Door" Consider the mysteries of the heart, that blood-pumping organ and, in Stephen Dobyns' latest collection of poems, the hapless romantic of our interior landscape. "The Himalayas Within Him" finds Heart worrying about the sound of his own heartbeat, wondering why it doesn't "blare like a quartet of trombones" as it reflects his "ardent complexity." In "Goodbye to the Hands That Have Touched Him" Heart, after suffering many sleepless nights, decides "that love exists at the root of his problems. Without love his path would be as smooth as a plate of glass and he'd sleep like a kitten." Dividing the Heart poems is the long "Oh, Immobility, Death's Vast Associate," a jazzy disquisition on human isolation and inaction in the midst of a planet full of people feeling similarly. Throughout Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides Dobyns has painstakingly sculpted straightforward language into a distinct sound, creating an unforgettable collection of poems that offers readers unexpected revelations about the complexities of the heart.

Author Notes

Stephen Dobyns was born on February 19, 1941, in Orange, New Jersey. He received a B.A. in 1964 from Wayne State University and an M.F.A. in 1967 from the University of Iowa. He was a reporter for the Detroit News and has taught at several colleges and universities including Sarah Lawrence College, Warren Wilson College, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University.

He has written about ten books of poetry and twenty novels. His books of poetry include Concurring Beasts, Heat Death, Common Carnage, Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, The Porcupine's Kisses, and Winter's Journey. He has received several awards including the Melville Cane Award for Cemetery Nights. His novels include Saratoga Haunting, The Wrestler's Cruel Study, Saratoga Fleshpot, The Church of Dead Girls, and Boy in the Water. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, Eating Naked and a book of essays, Best Words, Best Order.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The 10th collection of poems by suspense novelist (Boy in the Water; Forecasts, May 3) and poet Stephen Dobyns (Velocities; Common Carnage) is a modern morality cycle with an Everyman-like figure named Heart at its center. In 61 episodic poems, Dobyns reels off the foibles of Heart, who comes to resemble Charlie Brown as seen by Charles Bukowski. Heart is foiled repeatedly in his ill-conceived attempts to attract women (his knife-sharp steel valentine is intercepted by the bomb squad; he buys chest wigs to bolster his masculinity, but ends up eating them). His quest for happiness comes to an end over and over in similarly amusing and depressing anecdotes, and by the book's close one wonders whether Heart might not do well to listen to Prozac. Or even to FreudÄDobyns's willful sarcasm seems to want to foreclose its possibilities, as if by filling this book with cartoon versions of anxiety some genuine problem of lyric identityÄis Heart really only misogynistic Spleen?Ämight be forestalled. Which is not to dismiss the more pointed cartoons: in "Great Job," Heart takes the craze for validation to the point of running down into the street in the rain and telling everybody "Great job" as they pass. At the center of the book is a meditation on depressive inertia, "Oh, Immobility, Death's Vast Associate," in which Dobyns takes a stab at figuring out why most of existence is spent in a hostile state of doing nothing. In this case, it might just be a well-deserved rest. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Essaying his tenth collection of poems, Boston-based poet Dobyns pays complex tribute to admired poets John Berryman, Zbigniew Herbert, and others and in the process mines a new richness for his already skillful verse. Like his predecessors, Dobyns invents a second self, a kind of sad clown, whose zig-zag wanderings through life reflect issues both personal and universal; Dobyns's protagonist, Heart, frets over love, death, and dental work. In the center of these frank, witty anecdotes, Dobyns has placed a long poem (his most personal to date), the title lines of which suggest the whole book's meaning and preoccupation: "Oh, immobility, death's vast associate,/ you are the still center around which we jog." Like his maker, Heart clings to the hope that "when the world quits at last, he'll be like a bright bulb/ before the power is cutÄstill burning, still bright." This is Dobyns's finest volume to dateÄsplendidly free, profound, and absorbing. Highly recommended.ÄGraham Christian, Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One HEART I * * *                      --Sir Bones: is stuffed, de world, wif feeding girls. "Dream Song 4"--John Berryman * * * keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror ... beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"--Zbigniew Herbert * * * Palmström schwankt als wie ein Zweig im Wind ... Als ihn Korf befragt, warum er schwanke, meint er: weil ein lieblicher Gedanke, wie ein Vogel, zärtlich und geschwind, auf ein kleines ihn belastet habe-- schwanke er als wie ein Zweig im Wind, schwingend noch von der willkommen Gabe ... "Gleichnis"--Christian Morgenstern * * * All winter long, it seemed, a darkening Began. "Robinson at Home"--Weldon Kees GOOD DEEDS Heart sits on a stump in the backyard, dog turds, crusted snow lie all around. A window opens, a voice shouts: Come on back, Heart! But Heart won't budge. You see, there is a dark place in the sky despite the noon sun and lack of clouds. A spot above the oak branch on the right, like a dark splatter of spilled black paint. If you stretched out your arm, your hand could almost cover it. Heart can't explain it. It feels like sadness but why is there sadness? Heart sleeps okay, eats okay, moves his bowels just right. It feels like despair but why is there despair? Heart has pals, no big bills, and the roof doesn't leak. As far as Heart can tell, life is going well. The spot shimmers a bit and Heart thinks: It's showing me that it knows I am here. He imagines the dark spot leaving its home in the morning--can sadness be pre-existing? Could it fix like a tick on its victim's neck? But perhaps this is someone else's sadness and off on another street a gloomy stranger, who feels often suicidal, feels okay today, feels even optimistic. The oppressive weight has not come back and he skips a few steps. His sadness got lost, a not uncommon mistake. Heart's muscular good cheer reasserts itself. Although I feel terrible, he thinks, I don't really fgeel terrible. I feel it for a stranger who today gets a breather to let him rebuild a scrap of vigor. Right now he feels down, but soon he'll come 'round. Heart jumps from his stump. The day has just begun but already he has done his good deed. He'll eat a big breakfast, then make some calls. In the evening may come a chance for Romance. The black spot begins to fade. Soon it will be only a pimple on Heaven's blue sky. Wasn't this inevitable? The singing of formerly unheard birds grows audible. THE HIMALAYAS WITHIN HIM Heart worries about the sound of his own heartbeat. If it must be percussive, why can't it be musical like a steel drum or kettle? Or if not orchestral, at least more aggressive like a dragon's bellow in a dark tunnel. No one has yet critiqued the sound of his heartbeat. Were they being polite? Did they discuss with one another the puny patter of his inferior ticker? In Heart's newfound chagrin, he wants to buy a megaphone so his heart can boom, or a synthesizer so it can sing like a Bach chorale. Timpanies, trumpets, tom-toms-- shouldn't his heart blare like a quartet of trombones to declare his arrival? How lavish have been his loves-- shouldn't his heartbeat reflect his ardent complexity? Instead it beats out a dull monotone: thump, thump. But perhaps, thinks Heart, I delude myself. Perhaps my passions are quite insignificant and my sensitivity no greater than another's. Heart chuckles at the folly of such a thought. Over the horizon lie the Himalayas and within him rise his emotions, while the disparity in elevation is slight. Heart decides that his sedate beat is only camouflage. If it bespoke his feelings exactly it would mean constant earthquake with people leaping from skyscraper windows and babies yowling all night. If it truly reflected the cataract within him, gladhanders would nag him for favors. He'd waste his passion on trifles. Once again Heart is struck by nature's immense cunning: the complexity of the butterfly's wing, the salamander's artful coloration, and his own heartbeat: constant and sly. OLD WHAT'S-HIS-NAME Heart writes a letter to the ones who are missing-- those who moved away or slipped through the cracks. He wants them to know he misses them even yet. Some go back to earliest childhood. What might they look like? He realizes he must have passed a few on the street without a flicker of recognition, one with a cane, one with a beard, one with a red beret. It's been a long time, he writes to the first. Then he crosses it out. Many things have happened. He crosses this out as well. How do you speak to the disappeared? He remembers how some made him laugh, some cry, some roll up his eyes. He tries to recollect the smooth texture of their cheeks. Those who died, how long have they lain in silence? Those who live, do they stroll the streets even still? His list contains several hundred names, other names he can't recall. He sees their faces in the smoke. He wishes he could clasp each one by the hand. I wonder if you'll remember who I am, he writes. Then he rubs it out. Recently I've thought of you. He rubs this out, too. At last he hits on the right note, which he prints on hundreds of cards. Some he inserts in bottles he drops in the sea, some he ties to pigeons' legs, most are swept up in the dry eye of a passing tornado. Far away a bike messenger snatches a card from the air. Still here , it says, followed by an indecipherable scrawl. Old What's-His-Name, the fellow thinks: Up to his tricks. LIKE A REVOLVING DOOR Heart feels sad. He's tired of being a heart and wants to be a lung. A lung never lacks a sister or brother. He wants to be a finger. A finger always has a family. Or a spleen which only feels anger and is never sad. Sometimes Heart feels joyous, beats with vigor. But then the old stories resurface again: hardship, cruelty, the Human Condition. A kidney never faces these problems alone. The eyes in unison devise a third dimension. Not by being solo do the ears create stereo. But Heart must turn outward for comradeship, to seek another heart, a journey fraught with uncertainty. Like a revolving door-- such is falling in and out of love. And the betrayals! Heart needs only to consult his book of broken hearts to feel pessimistic. But soon he puts on a fresh shirt and heads out to the highway. He hangs a red valentine heart from a stick so people will guess his business. No matter that the sun is sinking and stormclouds thicken. Approaching headlights glisten on his newly pressed shirt and on his smile which looks a trifle forced. Dust catches in his hair and makes him cough. Why is Heart alone in the chest? Because hope is an aspect of the single condition and without hope, why move our feet? To see himself as purely a fragment: such is Heart's obligation. Let's quickly depart before we learn what happens. Sometimes a car stops. Sometimes there is nothing. FACING FAILURE Heart lies on a board with his hands crossed on his chest. He is neither resting, nor sick. He's working very hard. His brow knots up as he stares at the dock. Heart is investigating the nature of boredom. I'm bored, I'm bored-- everyday he hears this said, both by people he admires and by some he doesn't. Being a heart, he has no chance for boredom. He is beating every moment of the day and night. He pumps blood and falls in love--these are his endeavors. He thinks boredom is like being dead while still having the benefits of life. You can eat a peach, you can watch the sunset, you can walk the dog-- none of which will interfere with your suffering. Boredom isn't like sleep since boredom isn't restful. It isn't like meditation because the mind is blank with a touch of complaint. Heart tries to lie very still. Outside he hears a robin scolding his neighbor's cat. He hears a buzz saw and the bouncing of a basketball. Sunlight through the glass, the smell of cut grass-- Heart grows bored studying the nature of boredom. I'm a total flop, he thinks. Surely, if he were smarter, he could dig to the root of boredom and find a cure. He imagines the glad cries of the afflicted. They would lift him onto their backs and beg him to make a speech. Wherever he went, he'd be pointed out as the person who defeated boredom. Medals would coat his chest. Heart slaps his forehead: again his mind has wandered. He tries to face his failure. Like a sparrow I can't fly. Like a monkey I can't swing from branch to branch. Just getting through the day takes all his wits.' He lacks the knack to join the ranks of the ambulatory defunct.