Jun. 24, 2013

On the Death of a Colleague

by Stephen Dunn

She taught theater, so we gathered
in the theater.
We praised her voice, her knowledge,
how good she was
with Godot and just four months later
with Gigi.
She was fifty. The problem in the liver.
Each of us recalled
an incident in which she'd been kind
or witty.
I told about being unable to speak
from my diaphragm
and how she made me lie down, placed her hand
where the failure was
and showed me how to breathe.
But afterwards
I only could do it when I lay down
and that became a joke
between us, and I told it as my offering
to the audience.
I was on stage and I heard myself
wishing to be impressive.
Someone else spoke of her cats
and no one spoke
of her face or the last few parties.
The fact was
I had avoided her for months.

It was a student's turn to speak, a sophomore,
one of her actors.
She was a drunk, he said, often came to class
Sometimes he couldn't look at her, the blotches,
the awful puffiness.
And yet she was a great teacher,
he loved her,
but thought someone should say
what everyone knew
because she didn't die by accident.

Everyone was crying. Everyone was crying and it
was almost over now.
The remaining speaker, an historian, said he'd cut
his speech short.
And the Chairman stood up as if by habit,
said something about loss
and thanked us for coming. None of us moved
except some students
to the student who'd spoken, and then others
moved to him, across dividers,
down aisles, to his side of the stage.

"On the Death of a Colleague" by Stephen Dunn, from Landscape at the Edge of the Century. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of St. John of the Cross, born in Hontiveros, Spain (1542), the patron saint of mystics, contemplatives, and Spanish poets. He grew up in poverty — his father having given up his noble birth to marry a peasant girl. His father died when he was young, and he worked at a hospital for the poor to help earn money for his mother. Along with St. Teresa of Ávila, he worked to reform the Carmelite order. He was arrested for his attempts at reform, and he was treated brutally, given a public lashing once a week. But he wrote some of his best poetry while he was imprisoned. He managed to escape, and continued to work on Church reform and to write poetry, and even today he is considered one of Spain's greatest poets, with poems like Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul.

It's the birthday of essayist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce (books by this author), born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842). He became the second person in his county to volunteer for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War.

He wrote bleak short stories about the Civil War, his most famous is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," about a spy condemned to die by hanging, only to escape when the rope snaps. He runs through the forest, away from enemy gunfire, and eventually finds his home plantation, and is about to embrace his wife when he feels a blow on his neck, and it turns out the whole escape was a daydream in the split second before his death.

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Dunn (books by this author), born in Forest Hills, New York (1939). He published more than 10 books of poetry before his collection Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Dunn's first love was basketball. He was a star on the 1962 Hofstra basketball team that went 25 and one on the year. They called him "Radar," for his accurate jump shot. After college, he played professional basketball for the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Billies for a couple years before giving up the sport.

Dunn found a job as a brochure writer for Nabisco, and for the next seven years, he rose through the ranks of the corporation. He started to worry though that he would get stuck in a job doing something he didn't believe in, so he quit and moved to Spain with his wife and he started to write poetry.

Dunn said: "It would be a lie to say I must choose between happiness and art. I can live with many things. Just to admit that I've been married for 35 years means that I've experienced joy and diminution and quiet evenings and tumultuous evenings and betrayal and dishonesty and tenderness and withholdings and forgiveness and cowardice and boredom and friendship."

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




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