Jan. 31, 2001

The Guardian Angel

by Stephen Dunn

Broadcast date: WEDNESDAY, 31 January 2001

Poem: "The Guardian Angel," from New and Selected Poems by Stephen Dunn (W.W. Norton).

The Guardian Angel

Afloat between lives and stale truths,
    he realizes
he's never truly protected one soul,

they all die anyway, and what good
    is solace,
solace is cheap. The signs are clear:

the drooping wings, the shameless thinking
    about utility
and self. It's time to stop.

The guardian angel lives for a month
    with other angels,
sings the angelic songs, is reminded

that he doesn't have a human choice.
    The angel of love
lies down with him, and loving

restores him his pure heart.
    Yet how hard it is
to descend into sadness once more.

When the poor are evicted, he stands
    between them
and the bank, but the bank sees nothing

in it's way. When the meek are overpowered
    he's there, the thin air
through which they fall. Without effect

he keeps getting in the way of insults.
    He keeps wrapping
his wings around those in the cold.

Even his lamentations are unheard,
    though now,
in for the long haul, trying to live

beyond despair, he believes, he needs
    to believe
everything he does takes root, hums

beneath the surfaces of the world.

It's the birthday of poet Albert Goldbarth, born in Chicago (1948), winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for the poetry collection Heaven and Earth, A Cosmology (1991).

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer, Kenzaburo Oe, born in Ose, Japan. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

It's the birthday of novelist Norman Mailer, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). Raised in Brooklyn, he got an engineering degree from Harvard, then served as a rifleman in the Pacific during World War Two—which he wrote about in his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948).

It's the birthday of Trappist monk, poet, and writer Thomas Merton, born in Prades, France (1915). He was the first child of parents who were artists and pacifists; he lost both of them by the time he was 16. When he was 26 he entered the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky, where he spent the rest of his life. The monks live austerely, take a vow of silence, and are allowed to write two half-page letters four times a year. But Merton was allowed to write, and published dozens of essays, plays, and books of poetry. He's best remembered for his early memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which became an international best seller about the time Merton was building a shack deep in the woods so he could live in total seclusion.

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer John O'Hara, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905), a town he renamed Gibbsville in a number of novels and short stories. As a young man he worked for the local newspaper. Then, he said, "I went on the bum. I traveled out west, worked on a steamer, took a job in an amusement park." He ended up in New York, got a room in a hotel, and, using the bed as a desk, he wrote all night and slept all day, working on a manuscript. The result was Appointment in Samara (1934), which was well received. "Being a cheap, ordinary guy," he said, "I have an instinct for what an ordinary guy likes." His other books include Butterfield Eight (1935), Ten North Frederick (1955), and From the Terrace (1958).

It's the birthday of novelist Zane Grey, born in Zanesville, Ohio (1872), a dentist who, in his spare time, turned to fiction. His first successful book was Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), which sold more than a million copies. He wrote more than fifty novels, all in longhand, most of them western adventures.

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