Jul. 6, 2003

One of the Lives

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "One of the Lives," by W. S. Merwin from The New York Review of Books (used by permission of the poet).

One of the Lives

If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father
    had broken a leg parachuting into Provence
to join the resistance in the final stage of the war
    and so had been killed there as the Germans were moving north
out of Italy and if the friend who was with him
    as he was dying had not had an elder brother
who also died young quite differently in peacetime
    leaving two children one of them with bad health
who had been kept out of school for a whole year by an illness
    and if I had written anything else at the top
of the examination form where it said college
    of your choice or if the questions that day had been
put differently and if a young woman in Kittanning
    had not taught my father to drive at the age of twenty
so that he got the job with the pastor of the big church
    in Pittsburgh where my mother was working and if
my mother had not lost both parents when she was a child
    so that she had to go to her grandmother's in Pittsburgh
I would not have found myself on an iron cot
    with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse
that had stood empty since some time before I was born
    I would not have traveled so far to lie shivering
with fever though I was wrapped in everything in the house
    nor have watched the unctuous doctor hold up his needle
at the window in the rain light of October
    I would not have seen through the cracked pane the darkening
valley and the river sliding past the amber mountains
    nor have wakened hearing plums fall in the small hour
thinking I knew where I was as I heard them fall

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of children's author Beatrix Potter (some sources give her birthday as July 28), born in South Kensington, England (1866). She is best known for her twenty-three illustrated storybooks about Peter Rabbit. She was born into a wealthy family and was raised entirely by nannies and governesses. She lived on the third floor of her house, away from her parents, and ate all her meals alone. Her parents hired private teachers for her so that she rarely left the house. She spent a lot of time playing by herself with small animals like frogs, mice and rats. She kept a journal in a tiny, almost unreadable code so that no one else could read it. One of her only friends was her last governess, a woman named Annie Moore, who had married and started a family. Potter visited the Moore family and became friends with the children. When the oldest boy of the family caught scarlet fever in 1893, Potter wrote him a story about a rabbit that later became her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1901). It's about a rabbit who disobeys his mother's warning to stay out of Mr. McGregor's garden. It begins, "Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were -- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter."

On this day in 1862 Samuel Clemens first started publishing stories for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. The paper gave him his first full-time writing job, and it was the place where he first used the name Mark Twain. He had been working as a riverboat pilot apprentice on the Mississippi River. When his brother got a job working for the governor of Nevada, Clemens decided to go with him, looking for adventure. He tried his hand at mining, but it was hard work and he didn't like it. He was running out of money, so he started writing freelance stories for the Territorial Enterprise, and began publishing there on this day in 1862. They offered him a fulltime job and he moved to Virginia City, Nevada. He was supposed to cover the mining industry for the newspaper, but he found that he preferred writing about accidents, street fights, barroom shootings, and parties. He wasn't good with facts. In one of his first stories he signed, "Yours, dreamily, Mark Twain." It was the first time he ever used that pen name. It would become one of the most well known names in America.

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