A week ago, I wrote about a terrific new biography of Jim Thorpe, by David Maraniss.
I was particularly tantalized to read that the great American athlete, while at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, had been friendly with a young teacher named Marianne Moore.
Yes, exactly, the same Marianne Moore who soon moved to Brooklyn and became a
famous American poet into very old age.
Finding Miss Moore in a Thorpe biography touched off my recollection that in 1968 the worldly president of the New York Yankees, Michael Burke (whom I miss to this day), invited her to throw out the first ball on opening day.
The mention of Marianne Moore also touched the heart of the writer, Sam Toperoff, who has been my friend and inspiration since he was a basketball player/scholar at Hofstra College in the late 1950s.
Within 24 hours, I received Sam's email from the Hautes-Alpes department of France, containing references to two poets who won Pulitzer Prizes, 49 years apart – Marianne Moore (1952) and our friend Stephen Dunn (2001.)
“Dear George—After my first book came out, I got a call from the editor to tell me Marianne Moore loved it and wanted to talk with me about it. She invited Faith and me to tea on a sunny Sunday. She lived in a brownstone downtown, very near the Tombs. The fall of 1965, I think. She was, when she opened the door, indeed Marianne Moore, the old lady whose poetry I had studied as a student and taught as a professor at Hofstra.
“Yes, I was intimidated. But the editor had told me she wanted to meet me because she thought me very brave to have endured all I had written about in my book when in fact for me it was just a normal accounting of my lower middle-class family life as I had lived it up to that point.”
(NB: Sam’s first book was “All the Advantages,” circa 1965, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by the Atlantic Monthly Press.)
Sam recalled how Miss Moore “served tea and cookies she had baked herself. Marianne Moore! All was sort of stiff and formal until somehow the subject of baseball came up — I knew from her poetry she loved the game. Then she went off on the Dodgers. Remember, she had spent most of her writing life in Brooklyn; she had just moved to Manhattan. Well! She loved Pee Wee Reese, spoke poetically about him, how he glided, how effortlessly he played, how good he was for Jackie. Marianne Moore! She also lauded Red Barber for making her life so rich in her Brooklyn apartment. That was mostly what we talked about with Miss Moore that long afternoon — the Brooklyn Dodgers!
“I signed my book for her; she signed her last collection for me. And we went home. Her volume sits on my shelf next to Stephen Dunn.”
Before Stephen Dunn became a poet, he was a zone-busting jump-shooter teammate of Sam, who, on long bus rides into the wilds of Pennsylvania, encouraged Stephen to use the rest of his brain.
My college athlete pals (I was the student publicist) followed Stephen’s fame and also his terrible battle with parkinson’s disease, which rendered him unable to recite his own work in later years, although he wrote to the end.
Sam wrote: “As Steve was dying — I only thought he was ailing, damn it — he sent me a poem called ‘Final Bow.’ That’s when I got the message. Then when his collection came out, this was the poem he used to say goodbye, so he had orchestrated his own exit, the son-of-a-bitch. It’s a superb and funny and serious poem.
“Hell, why don’t I type it, forgive me if I cry:”
In my sleep last night
When the small world of everyone
Who’s mattered in my life
Showed up to help me die,
I mustered the strength
To rise and bow to them
A conductor’s bow, that deep
Bending at the waist, right arm
across my stomach,
the left behind my back.
At first it seemed like the comedy
of aging had revised and old scene--
how, with time running out,
I’d make the winning shot
In my schoolyard of dreams,
Only now I was wearing
an unheroic gown,
apparently willing to look foolish--
for what? What no longer mattered?--
before I lay again down.
---Stephen Dunn, 2021
Sam wrote: “I take that last poem of his as something of a challenge: How to go out the right way.”
Stephen died on his 82nd birthday in 2021.
Sam added: “And yes, I did cry. I love this poem. I love him, his talent, his courage, his exit.”
Larry Merchant writes, in the good old New York Post, about Marianne Moore:
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023