Thursday

Apr. 17, 2003

You're the Top

by Tony Hoagland

THURSDAY, 17 APRIL 2003
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Poem: "You're the Top," by Tony Hoagland from Sweet Ruin (University of Wisconsin Press).

You're the Top

Of all the people that I've ever known
I think my grandmother Bernice
would be best qualified to be beside me now

driving north of Boston in a rented car
while Cole Porter warbles on the radio;
Only she would be trivial and un-

politically correct enough to totally enjoy
the rhyming of Mahatma Ghandi
with Napoleon brandy;

and she would understand, from 1948,
the miracle that once was cellophane,
which Porter rhymes with night in Spain.

She loved that image of the high gay life
where people dressed by servants
turned every night into the Ritz:

dancing through a shower of just
uncorked champagne
into the shelter of a dry martini.

When she was 70 and I was young
I hated how a life of privilege
had kept her ignorance intact

about the world beneath her pretty feet,
how she believed that people with good manners
naturally had yachts, knew how to waltz

and dribbled French into their sentences
like salad dressing. My liberal adolescent rage
was like a righteous fist back then

that wouldn't let me rest,
but I've come far enough from who I was
to see her as she saw herself:

a tipsy debutante in 1938,
kicking off a party with her shoes;
launching the lipstick-red high heel
          from her elegant big toe

into the orbit of a chandelier
suspended in a lyric by Cole Porter,
bright and beautiful and useless.


Literary Notes:

It is the birthday of playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). His father was a newspaper editor and diplomat, and his family spent time in China, where Thornton's father was the American Consul General. He served in both World Wars, and became a lieutenant colonel in 1944. His big break was his second novel, The Bridge Over San Luis Ray (1927), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He also won Pulitzer Prizes for his plays Our Town (1937), about a small New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners, and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). He was a cheerful person -- his work was more optimistic than many of his contemporaries. This was reflected in a line he wrote for Emily in Our Town: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --every, every minute?" He said, "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate." He said, "Literature is the orchestration of platitudes." Wilder said, "I am not interested in…such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions." He wrote, "The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.' And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure."

It's the birthday of writer Isak Dinesen, born in Rungsted, Denmark (1885). Her real name was Karen, and she took the pseudonym to hide her gender. When her first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), was published and chosen for the Book of the Month Club, an aura of mystery surrounded it. She's most famous for her memoir Out of Africa (1937). It's written in a plain style, like that of Hemingway, who said the Nobel Prize should have been given to Dinesen, and not to him.


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