Dec. 6, 2003

The Unsaid

by Stephen Dunn

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Poem: "The Unsaid," by Stephen Dunn, from Local Visitations (Norton).

The Unsaid

One night they both needed different things
of a similar kind; she, solace; he, to be consoled.
So after a wine-deepened dinner
when they arrived at their house separately
in the same car, each already had been failing
the other with what seemed
an unbearable delay of what felt due.
What solace meant to her was being understood
so well you'd give it to her before she asked.
To him, consolation was a network
of agreements: say what you will
as long as you acknowledge what I mean.
In the bedroom they undressed and dressed
and got into bed. The silence was what fills
a tunnel after a locomotive passes through.
Days later the one most needy finally spoke.
"What's on TV tonight?" he said this time,
and she answered, and they were okay again.
Each, forever, would remember the failure
to give solace, the failure to be consoled.
And many, many future nights
would find them turning to their respective sides
of the bed, terribly awake and twisting up
the covers, or, just as likely, moving closer
and sleeping forgetfully the night long.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Susannah Moodie, born Susannah Strickland in Suffolk, England (1803). As a young woman, she married an adventurous man who had traveled around Africa, and the two of them sailed off to live in the backwoods of Canada, which at the time was still wild country. She's best known for her novels about pioneer life, including Roughing it in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings (1853). She's a very important literary figure in Canada, and the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood once wrote a book of poems about her called The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1972).

It's the birthday of English essayist Sir Osbert Sitwell, born in London (1892). He wrote many books of poetry and fiction, but he's best known as the author of autobiographical essays about the years before the collapse of the British Empire. He wrote, "I belonged, by birth, education, nature, outlook and period to the pre-war era, a proud citizen of the great free world of 1914. . . . [Now] the sabre-toothed tiger and the ant are our paragons, and the butterfly is condemned for its wings, which are uneconomic." His essays are collected in books such as Left Hand, Right Hand! (1945), Laughter in the Next Room (1948), and Noble Essences (1950). Sitwell said, "Poetry is like fish: if it's fresh, it's good; if it's stale, it's bad; and if you're not certain, try it on the cat."

It's the birthday of Austrian avant-garde playwright and novelist, Peter Handke, born in Griffen, Austria (1942). He's one of the most influential and controversial writers in the German language. When he first started writing plays, he said, "[I] couldn't stand the pretense of reality [in theater] . . . as if the actors were under a glass bell." He wanted to destroy the illusion. In his first play, Offending the Audience (1966), four actors come on stage to say that there is not going to be a play, and then yell insults at the audience. The play was a surprising success in Germany, but when it traveled abroad, many audiences yelled insults back at the actors.

He went on to write other experimental plays like My Foot My Tutor (1969) in which two characters interact for ten scenes without ever speaking. He has also written many novels, including The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) and Nonsense and Happiness (1976). He's best known in this country for writing the screenplay for the movie Wings of Desire (1987), about an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. His most recent novel to be translated into English is On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House (2000).

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, born in Middlesex, England (1893). As a child, Warner loved listening to her mother's stories about growing up in India. She said, "[My mother's memory was] this astonishing storehouse, full of scents and terrors, flowers, tempests, monkeys, beggars winding worms out of their feet." When she became a writer, Warner tried to write fiction that would reproduce the feeling she got from her mother's stories, of something fantastic emerging from something ordinary.

Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was about a woman who makes a deal with the Devil and becomes a witch in order to get away from her restrictive family. She wrote, "When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. . . . They are like trees towards the end of summer, heavy and dusty, and nobody finds their leaves surprising, or notice them until they fall off." The novel became the first ever Book of the Month Club Selection, and it was a bestseller in the United States. She went on to write many more books that combined realism and fantasy before it was a popular thing to do. She wrote The Cat's Cradle Book (1940), about a woman who believes that cats crawl into the beds of children at night to tell them fairytales, and The Kingdoms of Elfin (1977), about a magical world where women are the rulers.

It's the birthday of poet (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, born in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1886). He was a struggling poet, working as a writer of definitions for the Standard Dictionary, when he got a chance to hike through the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. When he got home, he wrote a poem, trying to express the beauty of what he saw in the forest. He called the poem "Trees." It begins, "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree" and ends with the lines, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree."

It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershvin on the East Side of New York City (1896). He's considered one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, best known for writing the lyrics to songs like "I've Got Rhythm" (1930) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (1937). But he always felt overshadowed by the talent of his younger brother, the composer George Gershwin. The two brothers worked together on many songs, and Ira once heard a radio announcer say, "Here is a new song by George Gershwin and his lovely wife Ira."

Though Ira Gershwin won a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrics in 1932, he was always modest about his work. When he published a collection of his lyrics in 1959, he wrote in the introduction, "Any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable." His secretary said that he almost always criticized his own work, but occasionally he would pat himself on the shoulder and say, "Good job, Gershwin. Good job."

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