Jane Austen in Egg Harbor [poem] by Stephen Dunn

In search of the right place she’d taken the local
that makes its way through South Jersey towns,
twenty or so passengers aboard in motley dress,
all minding their different manners. A small train,
just two cars, one class, carrying many classes,
she mused, ever the anthropologist.

And she thought of extravagance and self-denial,
her twin seductions, so hard to measure now—
the familiar boundaries of her vanished century
long gone. But as usual she found herself poised
between them, keen-eyed, looking in and looking out.
(Advocacy: a clear indicator to her of a lesser mind.)

It was twilight when she arrived, the outdoor platform
gray, the air cool. From the station she could see
the lights of town, little else, and walked across the street
toward them. Egg Harbor, White Horse Pike,
delicious words! Her suitcase weighed almost nothing,
as if she’d packed only for the demands of the soul.

Long modest dress and hand-knit shawl—she looked
strangely formal. Someone whistled from a car.
All contempt, she thought, is self-contempt,
and kept walking. It was a common mistake
to think her shockable because demure. She liked
that the main street wasn’t called Main Street,

liked the great width of it, how the unfancy cars
were parked diagonally. And the neighborhood, well,
felt neighborly, which meant to her full of drama
and high intrigue. She’d learn the nuances soon,
maybe start a book club, everyone reading out loud
before getting down to the gossip only fools don’t love.
She thought she might be happy here.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This poem put the editors in mind of Renée Ashley’s poem “While Walking to the Beach the Crazy Dog Lady Meets a Pit Bull Named Betty Marion White.”]

Stephen Dunn is the author of 17 poetry collections, including What Goes On: New and Selected Poems 1995–2009 and, most recently, Lines of Defense. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Different Hours. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Richard Stockton College, he lives in Frostburg, Maryland, with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd. “Jane Austen in Egg Harbor” first appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. XL, no. 3, Summer 2001.

Image by Martin Fisch