Oct. 30, 2006

An Empty Suit

by Robert Phillips

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Poem: "An Empty Suit" by Robert Phillips, from Circumstances Beyond Our Control: Poems. © The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

An Empty Suit

You can tell he was a big man,
46 Long, sleeves that would hang
below your knuckles, back vent
that would flap below your butt.

You can tell by the fine Italian wool
and cut he was a stylish man.
Not some mail-order or Sears suit,
but a designer label from Neiman's.

You can tell he preferred the subtle:
fabric a miniscule tic-weave,
shaded a smoky dove gray,
any color tie would go with it.

You can tell by the hair-oil stain
inside the back collar he was vain,
or at least well-groomed, a man
for whom appearances mattered.

You can tell he was a smoker,
or socialized with one—two tiny
cigarette burns, one on the right sleeve,
one by the middle button.

You can tell by the small gray stain
to the left of the breast pocket
he hadn't had much time lately
to attend to the dry cleaner's.

You can tell by the frayed bottoms
of the trousers he had lost a lot
of weight. They had drooped
till he was walking on his cuffs.

You can tell by the two red pills
in the right-hand jacket pocket—
potent prescription-strength
for pain—he underwent some ordeal.

You hope that's a lipstick smudge
high on the pearl gray silk lining;
maybe he was loved by somebody
who saw him through, you can't tell who.

But you can tell by the fact it hangs
in the thrift shop here, it isn't
the suit he was laid out in,
that once lucky, now unlucky stiff.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the second president of the United States, John Adams, born in Braintree, Massachusetts (now part of Quincy, Massachusetts) (1735). Though he was one of the most important founders of our country, he has long been overshadowed by the president who came before him, George Washington, and the president who came after him, Thomas Jefferson.

He made a name for himself as a young man by arguing against the British right to tax the colonies. When the British passed the Stamp Act in 1765, Adams argued that people should just stop buying stamps, and they did. When the British began taxing paint, lead, paper, and tea, Adams said people should stop buying those things as well. Colonists in Massachusetts stopped painting their houses and switched from drinking tea to drinking New England rum.

The British sent troops to Boston to keep the peace, as the colonists grew more and more disobedient. A riot in 1770 led to several colonists' getting shot by British troops, the incident that became known as the Boston Massacre. Adams took the surprising step of defending the British troops in court, because no one else would take the case. He argued that the violence was the fault of the British government, not the soldiers, and he managed to get most of the soldiers acquitted. Adams later said, "[Taking that case] was one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."

Adams's defense of the soldiers made him unpopular among the radical wing of the American revolutionaries, but it also gave his a reputation as a man of great principle. He was elected to the First Continental Congress in 1774, and began to argue that the British Parliament lacked any legal authority over the colonies. He quickly became the most respected advocate for breaking with Great Britain. People began to call him the "Atlas of Independence."

It was Adams who nominated Washington to serve as commander of the Continental Army, and it was Adams who chose Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. And it was he who persuaded the delegates from the colonies to adopt the resolution in favor of independence. He stood up on July 1, 1776 and spoke without notes for about two hours in favor of independence. No one knows exactly what he said that day, because no one transcribed his words, but Thomas Jefferson later said, "[Adams spoke] with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats." The resolution was adopted the following day, on July 2, 1776. It was probably the greatest day of Adams's life.

He was only 5 feet 6 inches tall, and he was overweight. Unlike Ben Franklin, he was not a great wit. He had no talent for flattery, and instead was always ruthlessly honest in his opinions. He also wasn't a wealthy man, and spent much of his later life struggling with debts.

John Adams said, "In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress."

It's the birthday of journalist and biographer Robert Caro, (books by this author) born in Manhattan (1936). He started out as an investigative journalist for New York Newsday, but he decided to write about the legendary public works commissioner Robert Moses, who had been called the most powerful non-elected public official in American history.

So Caro got a grant to write the book and quit his job. He thought the book would take him a year to write, but it dragged on for seven. Part of what took him so long was that he found a city storage room that contained a carbon copy of every document that Robert Moses ever produced as a city official, and he read every single document. The result was his book The Power Broker (1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize and was named by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Since 1974, Caro has been working on a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. His most recent volume about Johnson, Master of the Senate, came out in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize.

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