“The dead letter office predates the use of adhesive postage stamps.” Rick Miller, Linn’s Stamp News
People were writing letters with little hope of their arrival since forever. Before there was a regulated rate established for their passage from one place to another. Before typewriters or ballpoint pens. Probably before most of the population could read or write. The impulse to spill your guts to or at someone specific has to be programmed in us way back and in deep. Perhaps the suspicion or maybe even intent that the target of our vitriol, affection, desperate lust, confusion, hope, whatever, will never read the letter we spent time, frayed nerves, and snapping heartstrings composing is baked into the process.
If the object of our (fill in the blank) writes back, it becomes a conversation, a back-and-forth, rather than a monologue or diatribe or plea. A postmarked letter is like a thought-balloon that you watch fade over the horizon. You don’t sit staring down the vanishing point awaiting its return. The thing is to send it off and forget about it.
Over several decades, but most regularly from the 1980s to the early 2000s, I maintained regular correspondence with friends, family, and significant others. It was a cherished way to connect if for no other reason than the tangible evidence left after I’d read this or that message. I saved every letter and postcard anyone ever sent me. It was proof of my having mattered to someone sometime; a thing about which I often needed reassurance.
As cellphones and email overtook pen and paper, my archive of letters began to have the musty look and smell of the museum storage locker. I reread a letter from time to time, but as the senders faded from my life and I faded from theirs, these pages took on a blurry, fading aspect. As if I could no longer make out the words even as I held them inches from my face.
I hesitated to call this introduction “Dead Letter Office” because it is the title of an odds-and-sods collection by a forgettable 80s band. I won’t use their name here because that’s just free publicity. Thinking on it for some time I decided the term was rich enough to overcome this unfortunate association.
The idea of a room of forgotten or missent letters and packages is a useful way to think about my past. When I started rereading through my archive in earnest, it occurred to me that it might be a worthwhile exercise to answer a couple of them. I wasn’t interested in going back to whatever version of myself received the originals; I doubt I’d even recognize that person. I wanted to answer them as I am now, as if they showed up in my mailbox today. The hope is that the decades gap will make what I write resonate to someone or someones other than my old correspondents. That maybe I’ve learned something in the intervening years that could be of use to strangers.
USPS now calls their Dead Letter Office the Mail Recovery Center. I count this as a big mistake or at the very least a failure of imagination or appreciation for quotidian poetry. The one is a generic bureaucratic rubric while the other is a descriptor that inspires speculation and wonder. I guess sober practicality has won the day.
I don’t plan on making any such error.
My Rainbo Club show opens Sunday, June 25th. I’ll be hanging out there 4 to 8pm. It’s at 1150 North Damen Avenue in Chicago. Come by.
Mallory and I talk Gretel and Hansel.
Don’t waste your money on the Art Institute’s odds-and-sods van Gogh show.
RIP Cormac McCarthy. Here’s a reading of a few pages from Suttree, my favorite book of his.