Jan. 29, 2005

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

by Robert Bly

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Poem: "Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter" by Robert Bly, from Silence in the Snowy Fields. © Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter

It is a cold and snowy night. The main street is deserted.
The only things moving are swirls of snow.
As I lift the mailbox door, I feel its cold iron.
There is a privacy I love in this snowy night.
Driving around, I will waste more time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the 25th president of the United States, William McKinley, born in Niles, Ohio (1843). McKinley began the trust-busting era and led the U.S into the Spanish-American War, which brought the Spanish colonies of the Philippines and Puerto Rico under American control. He served two terms, being reelected in 1900, but he was shot on September 6, 1901 by anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz while at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died from the wounds eight days later.

McKinley's portrait appeared on the five hundred dollar bill from 1928 to 1946. He said, "Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not in conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war." He also said, "That's all a man can hope for during his lifetime—to set an example—and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history."

It's the birthday of novelist, short-story writer, and poet, Virgil Suarez born in Havana, Cuba (1962). He's the author of over fifteen books, including his first novel, Latin Jazz (1989) and the poetry collection, Landscapes and Dreams (2003). He's well known for compiling several anthologies of Cuban and Latin American writers. His father worked as a cutter in a garment factory. They left Cuba in 1970, first fleeing to Spain, and then finally to Los Angeles. He says, "I wrote to remember, and to put things in order. The life of an exile is chaos."

It's the birthday of writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, England (1737). He's best known for writing Common Sense (1776), the pamphlet that convinced many Americans, including George Washington, to fight for independence from England. The original title Paine came up with for the pamphlet was Plain Truth, and he also is credited with proposing the name "United States of America" for the new nation.

Paine was fired twice in four years from his job as a tax collector in England when he was a young man. His first recorded writing was a short article arguing for better salaries and working conditions. Paine was also an inventor, holding a patent in Europe for the single span iron bridge. He worked with John Fitch on steam engines, and he also developed a smokeless candle.

Paine published a series of pamphlets during the Revolutionary War called The American Crisis (1776). The first pamphlet begins with the famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls." It was so inspiring that George Washington had it read to all Patriot troops to boost morale after some early battle losses. Paine said, "War involves in its progress such a train of unforeseen and unsupposed circumstances that no human wisdom can calculate the end. It has but one thing certain, and that is to increase taxes."

Paine met with Napoleon in 1800, and Napoleon supposedly told him that a gold statue should be erected to Paine in every city in the world. Today, there are only five statues worldwide dedicated to him, and one is in Paris, France.

He said, "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right." He also said, "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one."

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Edward Abbey, born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1927). He's best known for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1976), a best seller that follows a group of ecological radical activists and explores the idea of extremist action to protect the environment. The book made him a cult hero. He said, "The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders."

Abbey's father was a farmer named Paul Revere, and Abbey was raised on a farm in the Appalachian Mountains. He served in the U.S. Army in Italy in 1945 and 1946. He moved to the Southwest in 1947 and stayed there for the rest of his life.

In 1956 he began working as a park ranger and a fire lookout for the National Park Service. He worked there for fifteen years, and this led him to write about the wilderness of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. He said, "For myself I hold no preferences among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous. Bricks to all greenhouses! Black thumb and cutworm to the potted plant!" His book Desert Solitaire (1968) is about his time working as a ranger in Arches National Park, Utah. In it he argues for, among other things, a ban on cars in wilderness preserves. In a memorial piece about Abbey, Edward Hoagland says of him, "Personally, he was a labyrinth of anger and generosity, shy but arresting because of his mixture of hillbilly and cowboy qualities, and even when silent he appeared bigger than life."

Abbey said, "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."

It's the birthday of comedian and actor W.C. Fields, (sometimes listed as April 9, 1879) born William Claude Dukenfield, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1880). He wrote the screenplays for some of his best-known films, including The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

It is the birthday of playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov, born in Tagnarog, Russia (1860). His grandfather had been a serf who bought the family's freedom, and Chekhov's father owned a small grocery store. Anton was one of six children. His father insisted his sons learn Greek because there was a large Greek colony in Tagnarog, and he thought it would be good for business reasons, so Chekhov started his education in a Greek school. He loved the theatre and managed to go to plays often, even though high school students were forbidden from going. Chekhov was very good at impressions, and he put on performances for his family with help from his brothers.

Chekhov's father went to Moscow when their business failed, and Chekhov stayed behind along with one of his brothers to finish school. He began writing for newspapers and small magazines to make some money, and eventually Chekhov went on to study medicine. By the time he earned his medical degree, he was already well known as a humor contributor to popular Russian magazines such as Zritel (The Spectator) and Sputnik. He still considered himself mainly a doctor, although he practiced very little except during the cholera epidemic of 1892-93. He said, "Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress. When I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other."

Chekhov's early full-length plays were failures, but his play the Seagull (1896), although at first getting terrible reviews, was revived in 1898 by Stanislavsky, and that time it was a success. Chekhov said, "One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake." Chekhov's most famous plays are Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904). All were written in the last decade of his life.

Chekhov caught tuberculosis in 1897 and lived abroad, in Crimea, and finally in Yalta from 1900 on for health reasons. He said, "Doctors are just the same as lawyers; the only difference is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and kill you, too." He also said, "When a lot of remedies are suggested for a disease, that means it can't be cured."

In 1901 he married the actress Olga Knipper, who played many of the female roles in his plays after his death. It was a happy marriage, but they spent most of their time apart because she was acting in Moscow and he had to stay in Yalta because he was sick. He said, "If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry."

He died in 1904 and was buried in Moscow. The crowds that were watching the funeral procession held up all traffic. Chekhov said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

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