Nov. 25, 2007

If You Knew

by Ellen Bass

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Poem: "If You Knew" by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

If You Knew

What if you knew you'd be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line's crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn't signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won't say Thank you, I don't remember
they're going to die.

A friend told me she'd been with her aunt.
They'd just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt's powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon's spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas, (books by this author) born in Flushing, New York (1913), who was an intern at Boston City Hospital when he began publishing poems in the Atlantic Monthly. He got $35 per poem, which was a better going rate than the $25 dollars he was getting from selling pints of his own blood. But he had to give up creative writing once he finished his internship, and he went on to work at a series of university hospitals, doing research on immunology, and finally becoming the president of Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York.

It was only after he had become one of the leading medical experts in the United States that a friend asked him if he'd like to write a column for The New England Journal of Medicine. He wouldn't get paid for his essays, but he couldn't pass up the chance to write on any topic he chose in a conversational style. He didn't have a lot of spare time, so he would choose an essay topic while driving home from work on Friday evenings and spend the following Saturday writing it. The essays touched on biology and space travel and classical music and termite colonies and medical conventions. He said that he was just writing them for fun, but when he his first collection, The Lives of a Cell, came out in 1974, it won the National Book Award and became a best-seller.

Lewis Thomas wrote, "We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth's creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still." And he said, "The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning."

It's the birthday of the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, (books by this author) born in Knoxville (1893), who was an English professor at Columbia University and a part-time drama critic for The Nation when he wrote a biography of Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau's work got him interested in nature writing. So he took a sabbatical from his job and went off to spend a year in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona. He'd lived most of his adult life in New York City, but upon arriving in the desert he said, "[It] almost seemed I had known and loved it in some previous existence." He wrote a book about it called The Desert Year (1952), and then shocked his friends and colleagues at Columbia when he announced that he was moving to Arizona permanently.

He went on to write many more books about nature and the American West, including The Voice of the Desert (1955) and The Great Chain of Life (1956), and his work had a big influence on the environmentalist movement. Joseph Wood Krutch said, "Both the cockroach and the bird could get along very well without us, although the cockroach would miss us most."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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