Jun. 29, 2004

Turning Fifty

by Stephen Dunn

TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2004
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Poem: "Turning Fifty," by Stephen Dunn, from Landscape at the End of the Century. © W.W. Norton and Co. Reprinted with permission.

Turning Fifty

I saw the baby possum stray too far
and the alert red fox claim it
on a dead run while the mother watched,
dumb, and oddly, still cute.
I saw this from my window
overlooking the lawn surrounded
by trees. It was one more thing
I couldn't do anything about,
though, truly, I didn't feel very much.
Had my wife been with me,
I might have said, "the poor possum,"
or just as easily,
"the amazing fox." In fact
I had no opinion about what I'd seen,
I just felt something dull
like a small door being shut,
a door to someone else's house.
That night, switching stations, I stopped
because a nurse had a beautiful smile
while she spoke about triage and death.
She was trying to tell us
what a day was like in Vietnam.
She talked about holding
a soldier's one remaining hand,
and doctors and nurses hugging
outside the operating room.
And then a story of a nineteen-year-old,
almost dead, whispering, "Come closer,
I just want to smell your hair."
When my wife came home late, tired,
I tried to tell her
about the possum and the fox,
and then about the young man
who wanted one last chaste sense
of a woman. But she was interested
in the mother possum,
what did it do, and if I did anything.
Then she wanted a drink, some music.
What could be more normal?
Yet I kept talking about it
as if I had something to say—
the dying boy
wanting the nurse to come closer,
and the nurse's smile as she spoke,
its pretty hint of pain,
the other expressions it concealed.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1613, the Globe Theater burned down. It was built by Shakespeare's acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, in 1599. It was a round, wooden building with thatched-roof balconies for the gentry. A cannon was fired during a performance of Henry VIII to mark the King's entrance, the thatched roof caught fire, and the whole theater was lost in an hour. It was rebuilt the next year, but then it was taken down in 1644 to make space for tenements, after the Puritans closed all theaters. A replica, the new Globe Theater, was built in the mid-1990s. More than 700,000 people visit it every year.

On this day in 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Age of Innocence. Sinclair Lewis's Main Street won the first vote, but it was considered too offensive by some prominent Midwesterners. Wharton's working title for The Age of Innocence was Old New York. She lived in Paris during the first World War, and she said, "I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and wrote The Age of Innocence." The book opens, "On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York."

It's the birthday of the author of The Little Prince (1943), Antoine de Saint-Exupery, born in Lyons, France (1900).

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