Mar. 4, 2001

A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal

by Billy Collins

SUNDAY, 4 March 2001
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Poem: "A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal," by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press).

A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal

Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things—
curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries—
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
you invisible.

Most days, we are suspended
over a deep pool of silence.
I stare straight through you
or look out the window at the garden,
the powerful sky,
a cloud passing behind a tree.

There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea,
and I can hide behind the paper,
rotate in its drum of calamitous news.

But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour—

then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.

March 4th is the day on which, until the mid-1930s, the President of the United States was sworn into office. On this day in 1801, Thomas Jefferson became the first President to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. On this day in 1829, Andrew Jackson invited rowdy supporters to a reception at the White House after his inauguration. They left muddy footprints all over the furniture and had to be lured outside with a tub of liquor. On this day in 1841, William Henry Harrison gave a long and rambling inaugural address and caught pneumonia; one month later he became the first President to die in office.

It's the birthday of crime novelist James Ellroy, born in Los Angeles, California (1948). His mother was murdered when he was a child, and he was expelled from high school for excessive truancy. He was expelled from the military as well, and turned to a life of petty crime—getting arrested dozens of times for drunkenness, trespassing and shoplifting. Among the items he stole were crime novels, which inspired him to think of writing something of his own. In 1977, he was hospitalized for double pneumonia and nearly died. After his recovery, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, got a steady job as a caddy at a Hollywood golf course, and wrote his first crime novel, Brown's Requiem (1981). In 1987, he published The Black Dahlia, the first in his L.A. Quartet series. The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992) completed the series.

It's the birthday of English novelist Alan Sillitoe, born in Nottingham, England (1928). After serving in the Royal Air Force, he spent eighteen months recovering from tuberculosis. While he was in the hospital, he read widely and began to write. He wrote the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), and the story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner." (1959).

On this day in 1887, 23-year-old William Randolph Hearst bought the San Francisco Examiner, and started to build the Hearst newspaper empire. He accomplished this with a rare combination of pretty good reporting and lurid sensationalism. The movie Citizen Kane was based on Hearst's ruthless career. By 1937, fifty years after he first purchased the Examiner, Hearst owned 28 major newspapers and 18 magazines, along with several radio stations, movie companies, and news services.

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