Aug. 3, 2007

Tell Me

by Anne Pierson Wiese

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Poem: "Tell Me" by Anne Pierson Wiese, from Floating City: Poems. © Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Tell Me

There are many people who spend their nights
on the subway trains. Often one encounters
them on the morning commute, settled in corners,
coats over their heads, ragged possessions heaped
around themselves, trying to remain in their own night.

This man was already up, bracing himself against
the motion of the train as he folded his blanket
the way my mother taught me, and donned his antique blazer,
his elderly, sleep-soft eyes checking for the total effect.

Whoever you are-tell me what unforgiving series
of moments has added up to this one: a man
making himself presentable to the world in front
of the world, as if life has revealed to him the secret
that all our secrets from one another are imaginary.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Hayden Carruth (books by this author), born in Waterbury, Connecticut (1921). He studied journalism and literature in school and then got a job with a publisher, where he tried to publish as many books by contemporary poets as he could. Then, in 1953, he had a nervous breakdown. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and he was subjected to electroshock therapy. When he was released from the hospital, he moved to a small cabin in rural Vermont, supporting himself as a freelance book reviewer and ghostwriter. And he started to concentrate on writing poetry. He said, "[My isolation] afforded me the opportunity to put everything together, the land and seasons, the people, my family, my work, my evolving sense of survival ... in one tightly integrated imaginative structure. The results were my poems, for what they're worth, and in my life a very gradual but perceptible triumph over the internal snarls and screw-ups that had crippled me from childhood on."

It's the birthday of mystery author P.D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James (books by this author), born in Oxford, England (1920). She was a young married woman with two children when her husband came home from World War II suffering from mental illness, probably schizophrenia. He was unable to work, and went to a series of psychiatric hospitals. James had to support the family by taking a job in the hospital administration of the National Health Service. She had always wanted to be a writer, but she kept putting it off. It was only as she approached her 40th birthday that she began to feel that she had to write something or give up on it altogether. It took her three years to finish her first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), and it was accepted by the first publisher she sent it to. She's one of the few professional writers in modern history never to have received a rejection slip.

James's first novel introduced her most famous character, the detective Adam Dalgliesh, who works for Scotland Yard, who writes and publishes poetry in his spare time, and who is haunted by the death of his wife and child during childbirth. P.D. James has gone on to write about Adam Dalgliesh in numerous books, including Original Sin (1995) and Death in Holy Orders (2001).

P.D. James said, "I love the idea of bringing order out of disorder, which is what the mystery is about. I like the way in which it affirms the sanctity of human life and exorcises irrational guilts."

It's the birthday of Rupert Chawner Brooke (books by this author), born in Warwickshire, England (1887). He was still in his twenties when his first collection of poetry Poems 1911 (1911) showed great promise. It went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. Then, the day after his 27th birthday, Britain entered the First World War. Brooke wrote at the time, "Well, if Armageddon's on, I suppose one should be there." And he signed up for the Royal Naval Division.

He died soon after his enlistment, on April 23, 1915, from blood poisoning he got from an infected mosquito bite on his lip. And even though he only wrote five "war sonnets," and his war experience involved just one day of action, during the evacuation of Antwerp, he still managed to become one of the most popular poets of the First World War. His fellow officers carried his coffin for two hours up a narrow and stony path to an olive grove on the island of Skyros. They buried him there in silence shortly before midnight, amid the smell of flowering sage. They put a wooden cross at his feet, sprinkled flowers around the coffin, and laid an olive branch on top.

Brooke's grave was later replaced with a more permanent one and inscribed with his most well-known poem, "The Soldier." It begins, "If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England."

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