Feb. 24, 2004

The Last Hours

by Stephen Dunn

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Poem: "The Last Hours," by Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours (W.W. Norton).

The Last Hours

There's some innocence left,
and these are the last hours of an empty afternoon
at the office, and there's the clock
on the wall, and my friend Frank
in the adjacent cubicle selling himself
on the phone.
       I'm twenty-five, on the shaky
ladder up, my father's son, corporate,
clean-shaven, and I know only what I don't want,
which is almost everything I have.
       A meeting ends.
Men in serious suits, intelligent men
who've been thinking hard about marketing snacks,
move back now to their window offices, worried
or proud. The big boss, Horace,
had called them in to approve this, reject that--
the big boss, a first-name, how's-your-family
kind of assassin, who likes me.
       It's 1964.
The sixties haven't begun yet. Cuba is a larger name
than Vietnam. The Soviets are behind
everything that could be wrong. Where I sit
it's exactly nineteen minutes to five. My phone rings.
Horace would like me to stop in
before I leave. Stop in. Code words,
leisurely words, that mean now.
       Would I be willing
to take on this? Would X's office, who by the way
is no longer with us, be satisfactory?
About money, will this be enough?
I smile, I say yes and yes and yes,
but--I don't know from what calm place
this comes--I'm translating
his beneficence into a lifetime, a life
of selling snacks, talking snack strategy,
thinking snack thoughts.
       On the elevator down
it's a small knot, I'd like to say, of joy.
That's how I tell it now, here in the future,
the fear long gone.
By the time I reach the subway it's grown,
it's outsized, an attitude finally come round,
and I say it quietly to myself, I quit,
and keep saying it, knowing I will say it, sure
of nothing else but.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer George Moore, born in County Mayo, Ireland (1852). He's the author of many novels, including A Modern Lover (1883), Confessions of a Young Man (1888) and Esther Waters (1894). Along with William Butler Yeats, he led the movement to create an Irish national theater at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Moore said, "My one claim to originality among Irishmen is that I have never made a speech."

It's the birthday of Wilhelm Karl Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1786). Along with his brother Jakob, he's famous for collecting and editing the stories in Children's and Household Tales (1812), which we know today as Grimm's Fairy Tales. The fairy tales include "Hansel and Gretel," "Cinderella," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Snow White."

Today is Shrove Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras. It's a time of celebration and merriment on the day just before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated over a period of several days in February leading up to Ash Wednesday. The word "carnival" comes from the combination of the Latin words "carne" and "vale", which mean "meat" and "farewell"—so Mardi Gras carnivals are a farewell to meat before Lent begins.

Mardi Gras is celebrated in many southern U.S. states, but the most famous celebration happens every year in New Orleans, where the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1699 by the French explorer Iberville. During the 1700s, when New Orleans was still under French rule, people there would throw dinner parties and masked balls for Mardi Gras. When the Spanish gained control of New Orleans, they banned these customs, and the ban continued even after New Orleans became a part of the United States. Finally, in 1827, Mardi Gras celebrations were legalized again.

Today, people come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras from all across the country. People wear green, gold, and purple and fill the streets of the French Quarter, throwing plastic beads and eating circular pastries called king cakes.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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