Monday Feb. 20, 2017

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When I Am Old

I’ll have dewlaps and a hump and say what all the time
in a cross voice: on every one of my bony crony fingers
a ring. My lips painted with a slash of bright fuchsia,
I’ll drink margaritas by the tumbler full and if my dealer
dies before I do, I’ll just have to look for younger suppliers.
I can’t imagine not being interested in sex, but if it happens,
so be it, really I could do with a rest, complete hormonelessness.
I may forget who I am and how to find my way home, but be
patient, remember I’ve always been more than a little confused
and never did have much of a sense of direction. If I’m completely
demented, I’m depending on friends: you know who you are.

“When I Am Old” by Moyra Donaldson from Selected Poems. © Liberties Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1792, George Washington established the United States Post Office Department. Provision for a postmaster general — at a salary of $1,000 per annum — had been made by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, but there had been an attempt to organize mail delivery as early as 1639, when Richard Fairbanks’ Boston tavern served as a central mail repository. The Continental Congress named Benjamin Franklin the first postmaster general; he held the position for a little more than a year, and the modern post office traces its method of operation directly to the system he set up.

On this day in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth—circling the globe three times over the course of almost five hours. His space capsule Friendship 7 landed safely in the Atlantic Ocean some 800 miles from Bermuda’s coast, though as a precautionary measure he had carried a note that read, in several languages, “I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity.” In 1998, Glenn again made history by becoming the oldest person to fly in space as a crew member of the Discovery space shuttle. Of that first flight, Glenn had few words: “I don’t know what you could say about a day in which you have seen four beautiful sunsets.” Glenn died this past December at the age of 95.

On this day in 1950, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (books by this author) arrived in New York City for his first American reading tour. Thomas, born and raised in Swansea, Wales, was already well-known for poems like “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “And death shall have no dominion.”

Thomas’s first stop was a reading at the Poetry Center in New York City. He read his own poems, along with those of Yeats, Hardy, and Theodore Roethke, to a crowd of over a 1,000 transfixed people. Thomas was portly and unkempt, leading fellow poet Robert Lowell to refer to Thomas in a letter as having a “dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown-button Welsh eyes always moving suspiciously or fixing on the most modest person in the room.”

Dylan Thomas toured the United States on and off for the next four years. Once, after drinking, he fell down the stairs and fractured his arm. The doctor also had to treat him for gastritis and gout. He debuted his play, Under Milk Wood (1953), with a live reading, though he had to be locked in his hotel room in order to finish it, which he did, but only an hour before the reading was set to begin. While in New York, he liked to stay at the Chelsea Hotel and drink at the Minetta Tavern.

In a letter to his wife, Caitlin, Thomas wrote of New York City, “I have no idea what on earth I am doing here in the very loud, mad middle of the last mad Empire on Earth. I’ve been to a few parties, met lots of American poets, writers, critics, hangers-on, some very pleasant, all furiously polite & hospitable. It’s a nightmare, night and day; there never was such a place; I would never get used to the speed, the noise, the utter indifference of the crowds, the frightening politeness of the intellectuals, and, most of all, these huge phallic towers, up & up & up, hundreds of floors, into the impossible sky. I feel so terrified of this place, I hardly dare to leave my hotel room.”

Dylan Thomas died in New York City at the age of 39 after a night of drinking at the White Horse Tavern. John Malcom Brinnin wrote a book about Thomas’s American tour, and their friendship, called Dylan Thomas in America (1955). Dylan Thomas’s books include 18 Poems (1934), Twenty-five Poems (1936), In Country Sleep, and Other Poems (1952), and A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1955).

Today would be the 92nd birthday of the filmmaker Robert Altman, born in 1925 in Kansas City, Missouri. Altman—whose surname translates to “old man” in German—was a five-time nominee for the Academy Award for Best Director.

Before he began his career in cinema, Altman served in the military as a bomber crewman. He flew over 50 missions in the last years of WWII before being discharged in 1946. Had he reenlisted a few years later as the military had hoped, he would have been sent to combat in the Korean War—the conflict that would later become the setting for his hit 1970 black comedy M*A*S*H.

M*A*S*H was a political parody engendered in the era’s widespread cultural opposition to the Vietnam war. In a stroke of luck, Altman was offered the chance to direct it only after 14 other directors had passed on it first. The movie would be his big break, providing him the funds and fame to begin an ambitious career of production—with an average of one movie finished a year. His films include Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Gosford Park, and The Long Goodbye.

Altman’s films bucked any single genre or tradition. He dabbled in a bit of everything. Nashville embraced the unusual form of musical satire enormous in scope, while McCabe and Mrs. Miller adapted the traditional western for a modern audience. Altman was also not one for a classic narrative structure with a beginning, middle, and end; instead, in creating each movie he sketched only a basic plot—what he called the film’s “blueprint”—and encouraged his actors to improvise their lines freely.  He had radical ideas about sound and dialogue for the time. He would often arrange for scenes of overlapping chatter, with multiple actors speaking at the same time, because, he said, “it is what we do in life.”

Altman said, “I never knew what I wanted, except that it was something I hadn’t seen before.”

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