Aug. 27, 2001

A Leak Somewhere

by Mary Jo Salter

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Poem: "A Leak Somewhere," by Mary Jo Salter from A Kiss in Space (Alfred A. Knopf).

A Leak Somewhere

No toy in a bathtub, the Titanic;
but on our twenty-one-inch screen
it's faintly laughable, as Barbara Stanwyck
and her daughter in their lifeboat gasp
at the sight of the great vessel sliding
into the North Atlantic like a spoon.

Yet only faintly laughable.
When the ship blows up, with Stanwyck's son
and husband on it, the four of us
(warm beneath one blanket flung
across a comfy sofa in
the lifeboat of our living room)

bob with the waves of melodrama.
How ironic! Their family had split
even onboard, but along other lines:
living abroad had spoiled the girl
(Annette was so pretentious she
addressed her fellow Yanks in French),

but Norman, with his normal name,
might still be saved in Michigan.
Or that was Stanwyck's plan. And now
he's sinking with shallow Clifton Webb,
his Paris-besotted father, to
a depth where such distinctions are all

for naught. The ship's a symbol of
society, we tell our children—
belowdecks, into the porthole maws
of furnaces, bare-torsoed men
stoke coal until their sweat runs black;
when the iceberg slices through the hull,

they're flooded in an instant. Above
in steerage, the crammed-in families
of the kerchiefed, overexcitable poor
race for the door and, as water climbs,
scramble upstairs where Guggenheims
and Astors (so well-bred they barely

raise an eyebrow even for
historic personal disasters)
set down their hands of bridge, and don
life jackets like the latest fashion.
Not enough lifeboats? Noblesse oblige,
everybody at once is noble,

and an instinctive revolution
reshuffles the classes: women and children
first. Down the Jacob's ladder
of rope they struggle to the shaky
safety of going on living, while
those left behind on the heavenly

height of the tilting ship take solace
in their perfectly rehearsed rendition
of "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
Oh, you and I can laugh. But having
turned off the set, and led the kids
upstairs into dry beds, we sense

that hidden in the house a fine
crack—nothing spectacular,
only a leak somewhere—is slowly
widening to claim each of us
in random order, and we start to rock
in one another's arms.

It was on this day in 1912 that Tarzan first appeared, in a story by a Chicago advertising writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs—the saga of an English nobleman's son abandoned in the African jungle and brought up by apes.

It's the birthday, in Kansas City in 1939, of William Lewis Trogdon, who, in the spring of 1978, was laid off from his English teaching job; separated from his wife of 10 years; reverted to his Native American name, William Least-Heat Moon; and set out on a tour of rural America. He later described the journey in his book, Blue Highways.

It's the birthday of Theodore Dreiser, born in Terra Haute, Indiana, 1871. He was the ninth of 10 children, and grew up moving around Indiana, a childhood he called "One unbroken stretch of privation and misery." He wrote the first great modern American novel, Sister Carrie (1900), and An American Tragedy (1925).

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