Oct. 11, 2005

On the Death of a Colleague

by Stephen Dunn

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Poem: "On the Death of a Colleague" by Stephen Dunn from Landscape at the Edge of the Century. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission.

On the Death of a Colleague

She taught theater, so we gathered
in the theater.
We praised her voice, her knowledge,
how good she was
with Godot and just four months later
with Gigi.
She was fifty. The problem in the liver.
Each of us recalled
an incident in which she'd been kind
or witty.
I told about being unable to speak
from my diaphragm
and how she made me lie down, placed her hand
where the failure was
and showed me how to breathe.
But afterwards
I only could do it when I lay down
and that became a joke
between us, and I told it as my offering
to the audience.
I was on stage and I heard myself
wishing to be impressive.
Someone else spoke of her cats
and no one spoke
of her face or the last few parties.
The fact was
I had avoided her for months.

It was a student's turn to speak, a sophomore,
one of her actors.
She was a drunk, he said, often came to class
Sometimes he couldn't look at her, the blotches,
the awful puffiness.
And yet she was a great teacher,
he loved her,
but thought someone should say
what everyone knew
because she didn't die by accident.

Everyone was crying. Everyone was crying and it
was almost over now.
The remaining speaker, an historian, said he'd cut
his speech short.
And the Chairman stood up as if by habit,
said something about loss
and thanked us for coming. None of us moved
except some students
to the student who'd spoken, and then others
moved to him, across dividers,
down aisles, to his side of the stage.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, also known as Vatican II. Vatican II resulted in some of the greatest changes in the history of the Catholic Church. As a result of it, Catholics were allowed to pray with Protestants and attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches. Priests were encouraged to say mass facing the congregation rather than facing the altar, and Priests were allowed to perform mass in languages other than Latin.

It's the birthday of François Mauriac, born in Bordeaux, France (1885), who wrote about Bordeaux in many of his novels: The Desert of Love, The Knot of Vipers, A Kiss for the Leper. On the eve of World War II, he spoke out against the Germans. He sided with Charles de Gaulle in the '50s in opposition to colonial policies in Morocco, and he condemned torture in Algeria by the French army.

It's the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, born in New York City (1884). Her father was an alcoholic and her glamorous mother made fun of Eleanor for her plain looks. She was in Italy visiting her grandmother when she bumped into her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the two began a secret courtship that wound up in their marriage in 1905.

It's the birthday of the crime novelist Elmore Leonard, born in New Orleans (1925). His family moved around a lot and finally settled in Detroit, where he grew up. He started out writing western novels, and then switched to crime. He doesn't write mysteries or detective novels, just novels about interesting characters who break the law, including Fifty-Two Pickup, La Brava. His latest novel The Hot Kid came out this year.

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