Jun. 24, 2002

A Secret Life

by Stephen Dunn

MONDAY, 24 JUNE 2002
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Poem: "A Secret Life," by Stephen Dunn from Landscape at the End of the Century (W.W. Norton and Company).

A Secret Life

Why you need to have one
is not much more mysterious than
why you don't say what you think
at the birth of an ugly baby.
Or, you've just made love
and feel you'd rather have been
in a dark booth where your partner
was nodding, whispering yes, yes,
you're brilliant. The secret life
begins early, is kept alive
by all that's unpopular
in you, all that you know
a Baptist, say, or some other
accountant would object to.
It becomes what you'd most protect
if the government said you can protect
one thing, all else is ours.
When you write late at night
it's like a small fire
in a clearing, it's what
radiates and what can hurt
if you get too close to it.
It's why your silence is a kind of truth.
Even when you speak to your best friend,
the one who'll never betray you,
you always leave out one thing;
a secret life is that important.

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Dunn, born in New York City in 1939. He played basketball for Hofstra University during their championship season, and then played professional basketball for the Williamsport Billies in Pennsylvania. His books include Full of Lust and Good Usage, A Circus of Needs, Local Time, Landscape at the End of the Century, and Loosestrife. His book Different Hours won him the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Stephen Dunn once said: "I once thought I could live a life that would hold up to scrutiny. A life of admirable consistency. Life, itself, confounded that."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Anita Desai, born in Mussoorie, India, in 1937, a "hill station" village in the foothills of the Himalayas. Her father was Bengali, her mother a German Jew. Her first novel was Cry, the Peacock. Her first work to appear in the United States was Fire on the Mountain in 1977. She is also the author of a number of children's books including The Peacock Garden and The Village by the Sea.

It's the birthday of the journalist and novelist Pete Hamill, born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1935. He worked as a reporter for the New York Post in the early '60s, and then as a columnist for Newsday and the New York Daily News. One of his best known novels is Flesh and Blood, which is about an Irish American kid's journey from the tough streets of Brooklyn to the world of professional boxing.

It's the birthday of the poet, critic, and translator John Ciardi, born in Boston in 1916. He taught at Harvard and Rutgers, directed the Breadloaf Writer's Conference in Middlebury, Vermont, and was the poetry editor for The Saturday Review. His poetry textbook How Does A Poem Mean was widely used in high schools and colleges. He was also a translator of Dante's Divine Comedy.

It's the birthday of essayist and editor Norman Cousins, born in Union Hill, New Jersey, in 1915, best known as editor in chief of The Saturday Review, a job he held for more than 30 years.

It's the birthday of the novelist Mary Wesley, born near Windsor in England in 1912, whose chief claim to fame was getting her first novel published at the age of 70. She had written for years before that, publishing children's novels. Her first adult novel was called Jumping the Queue, in 1982, about a widow planning suicide.

It's the birthday of the essayist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce, born near Horse Cave Creek in Ohio in 1842. He was a drummer in the Union army in the Civil War and was seriously wounded at Kenesaw Mountain. He became a successful freelance writer, newspaper columnist, and editor. He is best known to us as the author of The Devil's Dictionary, which came out in 1906, and is a volume of ironic definitions.

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