Nov. 19, 2001

By Fire

by Sharon Olds

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Poem: "By Fire," by Sharon Olds from Blood, Tin, Straw (Alfred A. Knopf).

By Fire

When I pass an abandoned, half-wrecked building,
on a waste-lot, in winter, the smell of the cold
rot decides me—I am not going
to rot. I will not lie down in the ground
with the cauliflower and the eggshell mushroom,
and grow a fungus out of my stomach
steady as a foetus, my face sluicing off me,
my Calvinist lips blooming little
broccolis, my hair growing,
my nails growing into curls of horn, so there is
always movement in my grave. If the worm
were God, let it lope, slowly, through my flesh, if its
loping were music. But I was near, when ferment
moved, in its swerving tunnels, through my father,
nightly, I have had it with that,
I am going to burn, I am going to pour my
body out as fire, as fierce
pain not felt I am leaving. The hair
will fizzle around my roasting scalp, with a
head of garlic in my pocket I am going out.
And I know what happens in the fire closet,
when the elbow tendons shrink in the heat, and I
want it to happen—I want, dead, to
pull up my hands in fists, I want
to go out as a pugilist.

It's the birthday of American poet Sharon Olds, born in San Francisco (1942). She has taught poetry at the New York City YMCA, the Manhattan Theater Club, and at Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, as well as at colleges and universities. She teaches now at New York University. Her first volume of poetry was Satan Says (1980). This was followed by eight other volumes of poetry, including The Dead and the Living (1984), The Father (1992) and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999). She says: "Poets are like steam valves, where the ordinary feelings of ordinary people can escape and be shown."

It's the birthday of child psychologist and author Penelope Leach, born in London (1937). She's the author of several popular books on child development and child rearing, including The First Six Months: Coming to Terms with Your Baby (1986) and Your Baby and Child: from Birth to Age Five (1997). She was also the host of the cable television series Your Baby and Child with Penelope Leach (1992).

It's the birthday of Western novelist Jack Schaefer, born in Cleveland, Ohio (1907). After he graduated from Oberlin College in 1929, he went to work as a journalist. It wasn't until 20 years later that he made his reputation as a writer of western novels. The first of his two dozen books about the Old West is also his best known, the classic Shane (1949), about a lone gunman who comes to the aid of a family of homesteaders in their struggle to hold onto their land.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Alan Tate, born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899). As a student at Vanderbilt University, he founded a poetry magazine called The Fugitive (1922-1925) and soaked up the poetry of T. S. Eliot. He went on to become the editor of The Sewanee Review (1944-1946), which gained a national reputation as a literary magazine under his leadership. His books of poetry include Mr. Pope and Other Poems (1928), The Mediterranean and Other Poems (1936), and The Winter Sea (1944). His most famous poem is "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1926).

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where four months earlier the devastating Battle of Gettysburg had been fought. The main speaker that day was the famous orator Edward Everett, whose speech lasted for two hours. After Everett wound down, President Lincoln stood up and delivered one of the most concise and memorable speeches in American history, beginning: "Four score and seven years ago our Fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

It was on this date in 1861 that Mrs. Julia Ward Howe sat down and wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The poem was first published in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, and later set to the popular melody "Glory Hallelujah."

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