Saturday

Dec. 7, 2002

Perfection

by James Tate

SATURDAY, 7 DECEMBER 2002
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Poem: "Perfection," by James Tate from Memoir of the Hawk (Ecco Press).

Perfection

When Cecilia Smith moved to Lunenburg
she was immediately the most sought-after girl
in town. Boys waxed their cars, got new hair-
styles, read books -- anything to impress her.
But Cecilia hated Lunenburg and thought the boys
were stupid and dull. She thought the girls were
even worse. And so she had no one. After a while
the boys got fed up with her disdain and forgot
about her. The girls did, too. The most beautiful,
the most exquisite girl in Lunenburg walked the
streets completely unnoticed. A shade, a wraith,
a shudder of whitish fabric, the dreamy breezes.


It's the birthday of John Kennedy Toole, born New Orleans (1937). He wrote The Confederacy of Dunces (1981) when he was stationed in the Army in Puerto Rico. He won a publishing contract for the book, but was asked to make extensive revisions to it; two years later, with no publication date in sight, he took off on a car ride across the country, and killed himself in the woods outside Biloxi. After his death, his mother pestered Walker Percy to read her son's manuscript. Percy thought it was a work of genius, and it was published in 1981, eleven years after Toole's suicide.

It's the birthday of Joyce Cary, born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1888). He wrote Mister Johnson (1939) and The Horse's Mouth (1944), in which he wrote: "Even the worst artist that ever was, even a one-eyed mental deficient with the shakes in both hands who sets out to paint the chicken-house, can enjoy the first stroke. Can think, By God, look what I've done. A miracle. Yes, the beginning, the first stroke on a picture, or a back fence, must be one of the keenest pleasures open to mankind. It's certainly the greatest an artist can have. It's also the only one. And it doesn't last long , usually about five minutes."

It's the birthday of Haywood Campbell Broun, born in Brooklyn, New York (1888). He wrote a column for the New York World called "It Seems to Me" in which he regularly outraged his readers -- and his publisher -- by defending people like Margaret Sanger, D.H. Lawrence, and Sacco and Vanzetti. People forgave him because he also loved baseball, and he knew Christy Mathewson and Babe Ruth.

It's the birthday of Willa Cather, born Wilella Cather, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia (1875). Her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska when she was nine and this is where her famous novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918) are set. She entered the University of Nebraska planning to study medicine, but a professor submitted an essay she had written to the Nebraska State Journal, and the experience of seeing her name in print gratified her so much -- she said it had a "hypnotic effect" on her -- that she changed her mind and decided to become a writer. She worked as a journalist for the muckraking journal McClure's until the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett told her she'd never write anything of consequence if she didn't quit her job. My Antonia was published when she was forty-five. "My grandfather's homestead was about eighteen miles from Red Cloud -- a little town on the Burlington...We drove out...one day in April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding onto the side of the wagon box to steady myself -- the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days...As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything -- it was a kind of erasure of personality. I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron."



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