Mar. 9, 2010

Elegy for the Personal Letter

by Allison Joseph

I miss the rumpled corners of correspondence,
the ink blots and crossouts that show
someone lives on the other end, a person
whose hands make errors, leave traces.
I miss fine stationary, its raised elegant
lettering prominent on creamy shades of ivory
or pearl grey. I even miss hasty notes
dashed off on notebook paper, edges
ragged as their scribbled messages—
can't much write now—thinking of you.
When letters come now, they are formatted
by some distant computer, addressed
to Occupant or To the family living at
meager greetings at best,
salutations made by committee.
Among the glossy catalogs
and one time only offers
the bills and invoices,
letters arrive so rarely now that I drop
all other mail to the floor when
an envelope arrives and the handwriting
is actual handwriting, the return address
somewhere I can locate on any map.
So seldom is it that letters come
That I stop everything else
to identify the scrawl that has come this far—
the twist and the whirl of the letters,
the loops of the numerals. I open
those envelopes first, forgetting
the claim of any other mail,
hoping for news I could not read
in any other way but this.

"Elegy for the Personal Letter" by Allison Joseph, from My Father's Kites. © Steel Toe Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote the tune to "Blessed Assurance" and to more than 500 other hymns: Phoebe Knapp, (books by this author) born in New York, New York (1839).

One day in 1873, Knapp was having a pipe organ set up in her house when a fellow John Street Methodist Episcopal Church parishioner, a blind woman 20 years older than she was, came over for a visit. Phoebe Knapp sat down at the piano to play for this woman, whose name was Fanny Crosby, the tune she'd just composed. She asked her what she thought the melody was saying, and Crosby replied "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine."

For the second verse, Crosby wrote: "Perfect submission, perfect delight, / visions of rapture now burst on my sight; / angels descending bring from above / echoes of mercy, whispers of love."

It's the birthday of technology writer David Pogue, (books by this author) born in Shaker Heights, Ohio (1963), one of the best-selling "how-to-guide" authors ever. He's written several books in the For Dummies series, including the first guide to Mac computers, and guides to opera and classical music and magic. His novel Hard Drive was a New York Times "notable book of the year." For the past decade, he's been writing a weekly technology column for The New York Times called "State of the Art."

It's the birthday of writer Vita Sackville-West, (books by this author) born in Knole, England (1892), born with a silver spoon in her mouth: She grew up in a mansion with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. But her childhood wasn't exactly idyllic nor happy, since she and her mother didn't get along well.

She started writing early; before her 19th birthday she'd written eight novels. And by the time she married at age 22 the dashing diplomat Harold Nicolson, she'd had several love affairs with women. As it turns out, her husband was gay. Still, it was a wonderfully companionable and happy marriage, and when the two were apart from each other, they wrote each other daily letters.

One of Vita Sackville-West's most famous romances was with writer Virginia Woolf. In January 1927, she wrote to Woolf a letter that said:

"I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn't even feel it. And yet I believe you'll be sensible of a little gap. But you'd clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. ... Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan't make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this — but oh my dear, I can't be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don't love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don't really resent it."

Later that year, in October, Woolf had come up with the idea for a new novel, inspired by Vita, who often wore man's clothes. Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography, about a transgender writer who lives for hundreds of years, came out in 1928. Vita's son Nigel called Woolf's book "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature." It was made into a movie in 1992.

Vita Sackville-West kept up one of the most famous gardens in England, and she went on to write a great many books, including the novels Seducers in Ecuador (1924), The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour (1932). She wrote several volumes of poetry and a handful of biographies, including one of St. Joan of Arc.

Vita Sackville-West said: "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?"

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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