Jun. 24, 2004

On the Way to Work

by Stephen Dunn

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Poem: "On the Way to Work," by Stephen Dunn, from Between Angels. © W.W. Norton and Co. Reprinted with permission.

On the Way to Work

Life is a bitch. And then you die.
          —a bumper sticker

I hated bumper stickers, hated
the notion of wanting to be known
by one glib or earnest thing.
But this time I sped up to see
a woman in her forties, cigarette,
no way to tell how serious
she was, to what degree she felt
the joke, or what she wanted from us
who'd see it, philosophers all.
If I'd had my own public answer—
"New Hope For The Dead,"
the only sticker I almost stuck—
I would have driven in front of her
and slowed down. How could we not
have become friends
or the kind of enemies
who must talk into the night,
just one mistake away from love?
I rode parallel to her,
glancing over, as one does
on an airplane at someone's book.
Short, straight hair. No make-up.
A face that had been a few places
and only come back from some.
At the stop light I smiled
at her, then made my turn
toward the half-life of work
past the placebo shops
and the beautiful park, white
like a smokescreen with snow.
She didn't follow, not in this
bitch of a life.
And I had so much to tell her
before we die
about what I'd done all these years
in between, under, and around
truths like hers. Who knows
where we would have stopped?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Dunn, born in Forest Hills, New York (1939). He published more than ten books of poetry before his collection Different Hours won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. His latest collection is Local Visitations (2003).

Dunn's first love was basketball. He was a star on the 1962 Hofstra basketball team that went twenty-five and one on the year. They called him "Radar," for his accurate jump shot. After college, he played professional basketball for the Williamsport, Pennsylvania Billies for a couple years before giving up the sport.

Dunn found a job as a brochure writer for Nabisco, and for the next seven years he rose through the ranks of the corporation until he was making a comfortable living. Finally, he started to worry that he would get stuck in a job doing something he didn't enjoy or believe in, so he quit and moved to Spain with his wife. For the first year, they lived on less than $3,000 while Dunn worked on a novel. He finished the novel, but he eventually switched to poetry, and his first collection, Looking for Holes in the Ceiling, was published in 1974.

Dunn said, "It would be a lie to say I must choose between happiness and art. I can live with many things. Just to admit that I've been married for 35 years means that I've experienced joy and diminution and quiet evenings and tumultuous evenings and betrayal and dishonesty and tenderness and withholdings and forgiveness and cowardice and boredom and friendship."

It's the birthday of journalist and novelist Pete Hamill, born in Brooklyn, New York (1935). His novels include Flesh and Blood (1977) and Forever (2003).

Hamill said, "I don't ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning. There they are, and they are beautiful."

And, "The best newspapermen I know are those most thrilled by the daily pump of city room excitements; they long fondly for a 'good murder'; they pray that assassinations, wars, catastrophes, break on their editions."

It's the birthday of poet and essayist John Ciardi, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1916). He's remembered today for his book How Does a Poem Mean? (1959), which has become a standard textbook in high school and college poetry classes. He also published several collections of his own poetry, and his Collected Poems came out in 1997. But he may be best known for his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, published in 1954.

Ciardi said, "The reader deserves an honest opinion. If he doesn't deserve it, give it to him anyhow."

And he said, "A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students."

It's the birthday of essayist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce, born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842). He first made a name for himself as a columnist in San Francisco in the 1860s and '70s, at a time when the city was home to all of the best writers of the American West, including Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Today Bierce is best known for his Devil's Dictionary (1906), a book of ironic definitions.

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