Remembering Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, 1929
Dorothy Day, 1929

November 29 marks the 28th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s death. I owe much of my formation as a Catholic, as an activist, and as a writer to Dorothy Day and the Worker movement. Currently, I’m making my way through the recently released The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg. Dorothy’s personal papers were embargoed for 25 years after her death. Ellsberg has done a phenomenal job in sifting, collecting, tracing, and editing. (I’ve written a few times about D. Day and the Catholic Worker movement for Sojourners.)

Below is a poem by my friend Ted Deppe, recalling Dorothy:

House of Hospitality
Tivoli, NY, 1976

Down the hall, someone’s playing Schumann and cursing,
and Dorothy says, ‘That’s why we call this a house of
hostility. At least we don’t turn away those in need,
but all our farms are failures.’ She quotes Dostoyevsky
to sum up fifty years of the Worker: ‘Love in dreams
seems easy, but love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.’

Outside, the ice on the Hudson keeps breaking with loud booms,
and Dorothy recalls the San Francisco quake
when she was eight. Which prompts an elderly man, silent so far,
to clear his throat and say, ‘I was there—I heard Caruso
sing from the window of the Palace Hotel. We were running
down Market Street when Mother stopped, pointed up,

and there he was, testing his voice they say—he was afraid
he might have lost it during the disaster—singing from La Boheme,
that magnificent tenor of his floating above the sound of collapsing
buildings.’ ‘And you heard him sing?’ asks Dorothy, ‘you heard
Caruso?’ and the man—a very articulate schizophrenic—says,
‘I saw a city destroyed and heard Caruso sing on the same morning.’

‘What a life!’ Dorothy says. ‘See, I was in Oakland,
where it wasn’t so bad. I only read about Caruso. And his valet—
did you see him? A character out of Ignazio Silone!
I mean, I love opera, I love Caruso, but this valet, when the quake hit,
reportedly came into the maestro’s hotel room
and told him, “Signor, it is nothing—nothing—but I think

we should go outside.” Then, once he’d waited in the shaking
building for Caruso to sing, a cappella, the complete aria,
once he’d finally escorted him safely to the open square,
he climbed six floors to that Room with a View
to pack the great man’s trunks, and carefully—apparently
calmly—carried them down, one by one.’

This poem appeared originally in The Shop and will appear in Orpheus on the Red Line (Tupelo Press, 2009)..

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