Oct. 20, 2003


by Stephen Dunn

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Poem: "Tenderness," by Stephen Dunn, from Between Angels (W.W. Norton).


Back then when so much was clear
and I hadn't learned
young men learn from women

what it feels like to feel just right,
I was twenty-three,
she thirty-four, two children, a husband

in prison for breaking someone's head.
Yelled at, slapped
around, all she knew of tenderness

was how much she wanted it, and all
I knew
were back seats and a night or two

in a sleeping bag in the furtive dark.
We worked
in the same office, banter and loneliness

leading to the shared secret
that to help
National Biscuit sell biscuits

was wildly comic, which led to my body
existing with hers
like rain that's found its way underground

to water it naturally joins.
I can't remember
ever saying the exact word, tenderness,

though she did. It's a word I see now
you must be older to use,
you must have experienced the absence of it

often enough to know what silk and deep balm
it is
when at last it comes. I think it was terror

at first that drove me to touch her
so softly,
then selfishness, the clear benefit

of doing something that would come back
to me twofold,
and finally, sometime later, it became

reflexive and motiveless in the high
ignorance of love.
Oh abstractions are just abstract

until they have an ache in them. I met
a woman never touched
gently, and when it ended between us

I had new hands and new sorrow,
everything it meant
to be a man changed, unheroic, floating.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of English architect Sir Christopher Wren, born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire (1632). As a young man, Wren studied astronomy, optics, and physics, but his interests shifted quickly to architecture. His career was just beginning when plague and fire swept through London in 1665 and 1666. Wren became interested in restoring London, especially the medieval cathedral of St. Paul's. He designed and built many churches over his career, but it was his thirty-five-year-long restoration of St. Paul's, with its magnificent dome, that earned him lasting fame.

It's the birthday of French poet Arthur Rimbaud, born in Charleville, France (1854). He had a harsh childhood. His father abandoned him, and his mother forbade him to play with other children. Rimbaud ran away from home when he was sixteen years old, and lived in poverty on the streets of Paris. A year later he began a relationship with writer Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud wrote his first collection of poems, The Drunken Boat (1871), when he was seventeen. Two years later, his relationship with Verlaine ended violently, and Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell (1873). He stopped writing poetry when he was 21 years old, learned several languages, and wandered around Europe and Africa until his death in 1891.

It's the birthday of former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). He was the first poet to hold the position of poet laureate for three consecutive years. His poetry collections include Sadness and Happiness (1975) and Jersey Rain (2000). In addition to his own poetry, Pinksy published an award-winning verse translation of Dante's Inferno (1994). He also wrote a book-length poem called An Explanation of America (1979). The poem covers many aspects of American culture and history, and in it he compares America with the early years of the Roman Empire. Robert Pinsky said, "I would like to write a poetry which could contain every kind of thing, while keeping all the excitement of poetry."

It's the birthday of political humorist Art Buchwald, born in Mount Vernon, New York (1925). In 1982, Buchwald won the Pulitzer Prize for his syndicated column "Art Buchwald," which appears twice a week in over 550 newspapers. His columns have been published as collections such as I Think I Don't Remember (1987) and Whose Rose Garden Is It Anyway? (1989). Buchwald began writing columns when he lived in Paris in the 1950s. In order to afford to live there, he took a job writing a column for the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune called "Paris After Dark" (1949). At first, he wrote about Parisian nightclubs, but then he began to write a humorous column called "Europe's Lighter Side" (1952). One of his best-known satires from his French columns is about a fictional American tourist who tried to win the "six-minute-Louvre race." Buchwald wrote about him racing from the Mona Lisa to the other famous artworks in the museum, making excellent time "under perfect conditions, with a smooth floor, excellent lighting, and no wind."

Buchwald began writing political satire when President Eisenhower made a trip to France. His humorous articles caught the attention of Eisenhower's press secretary, who called the pieces "unadulterated rot." Buchwald answered back, "I have been known to write adulterated rot, but never unadulterated rot." After this, he moved back to the United States and began writing political satire full-time. Buchwald said, "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

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