Jul. 13, 2003


by Stephen Dunn

SUNDAY, 13 JULY 2003
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Poem: "Tucson," by Stephen Dunn from Loosestrife (Norton).


A man was dancing with the wrong woman
in the wrong bar, the wrong part of town.
He must have chosen the woman, the place,
as keenly as you choose what to wear
when you dress to kill.
And the woman, who could have said no,
must have made her choice years ago,
to look like the kind of trouble
certain men choose as their own.
I was there for no good reason myself,
with a friend looking for a friend,
but I'm not important.
They were dancing close
when a man from the bar decided
the dancing was wrong. I'd forgotten
how fragile the face is, how fists too
are just so many small bones.
The bouncer waited, then broke in.
Someone wiped up the blood.
The woman began to dance
with another woman, each in tight jeans.
The air pulsed. My hands
were fidgety, damp.
We were Mexicans, Indians, whites.
The woman was part this, part that.
My friend said nothing's wrong, stay put,
it's a good fighting bar, you won't get hurt
unless you need to get hurt.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Dale Peck, born in Long Island, New York (1967). He made his name in the literary world before he reached the age of 30, with the books Martin and John (1993), about a young man's attempt to cope with his lover's death from AIDS, and The Law of Enclosures (1996), about two couples and their marriages gone bad.

It's the birthday of playwright and poet Wole Soyinka, born in Abeokuta, Nigeria (1934)-the first black writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was in America in the summer of 1967 when he heard that civil war was about to break out in Nigeria. He immediately went back home, and when he arrived he was arrested and put in jail without trial, for supposedly aiding rebels who were fighting for independence. He spent the next two years in solitary confinement. They would not give him anything to write with, so he made his own ink and wrote on toilet paper and cigarette packages. Each piece of Soyinka's work that was smuggled out became a literary event. Together, his writings form the books Poems from Prison (1969) and The Man Died: Prison Notes (1972). He founded the Nigerian national theater, and his plays include The Dance of the Forests (1960), Death and the King's Horseman (1976), and From Zia, With Love (1992). He writes about what he calls "the oppressive boot [and] the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it."

It's the birthday of English poet John Clare, born in Helpston, Nottinghamshire (1793). He grew up on a farm, writing poems on his mother's sugar bags, but he was only able to attend school for three months a year. He spent the rest of his time tending his father's sheep. When he was twelve, he left school altogether to work as a laborer. In his spare time he continued to write poetry, and in 1820 he published his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), with the byline "John Clare, a Nottinghamshire peasant." He became suddenly famous. That year sightseers visited his cottage, wealthy patrons gave him money, and he went to London to meet other poets such as Coleridge and Charles Lamb. After his initial success, things went downhill for Clare. He continued to publish books of poems, including The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835), but they did not sell as well as his first book and he fell out of fashion. He became a tenant farmer to support his seven children. He drank too much, started to lose his mind, and was sent to an insane asylum. In 1841 he escaped and walked 80 miles back to his home, eating grass by the roadside along the way because he was so hungry. Eventually he was sent back to another asylum, where he spent the last 23 years of his life, believing he was Lord Byron or Robert Burns, and writing some of his best work.

It's the birthday of Russian short story writer Isaac(k) Babel, born in Odessa, Ukraine (1894), in the Jewish ghetto. He published his first stories about the Odessa ghetto in a St. Petersburg monthly that was edited by Maksim Gorky, and later collected them in Tales of Odessa (1931). The tsarist censors considered the stories crude and obscene, but Gorky encouraged him and told him see the world. Babel took his advice, serving in the Cossack First Cavalry Army, and he drew on that experience for his book Red Cavalry (1926). In 1939, Babel was arrested by the Soviet secret police for a screenplay that they said was anti-Stalinist. On January 27, 1940, he was executed in Moscow.

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