Nov. 25, 2003
Poem: "The Mercy," by Philip Levine from The Mercy (Knopf).
The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named "The Mercy."
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
"orange," saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept "The Mercy" afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
"The Mercy," I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, "Tancred" out of Glasgow, "The Neptune"
registered as Danish, "Umberto IV,"
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Lewis Thomas, born in Flushing, New York (1913). He's the author of The Lives of a Cell (1974).
It's the birthday of Helen Hooven Santmyer, born in Xenia, Ohio (1895). She read Sinclair Lewis' novel Main Street when it was published in the 1920s, and it offended her. She decided that she could write a better book about a small town. It took her fifty years to finish, but she wrote . . . And Ladies of the Club. It was published when she was 88.
It's the birthday of editor and critic Leonard Woolf, born in London (1880). He was a bureaucrat who served the British crown in Sri Lanka, but he left the civil service when he married Virginia [Woolf]. One day, on impulse, they bought a hand press and a lot of lead type, which they set up in the house, thinking it would be fun to tinker with when writing was going badly. They found themselves consumed by the work of printing books. The Hogarth Press published the early work of T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, E. M. Forster and Sigmund Freud, as well as the Woolfs' own novels and essays. They turned down the chance to publish James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). "Never have I read such tosh," Virginia wrote. "The third, fourth, fifth, sixth chapters--merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges." She called Ulysses a "pale" and "disheveled" "disaster."
It's the birthday of Lope Felix de Vega, born in Madrid (1562). He was the first playwright in Spain to make enough money at writing dramas to support himself. On his deathbed, told by his friends that the end was near, he is said to have confessed, "All right, then, I'll say it: I never cared for Dante; he makes me sick."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®