May 24, 2004
Poem: "Mahogany China," by Jim Dodge, from Rain on the River. © Grove Press. Reprinted with permission.
My grandmother tells me
About her first love
Johnny Hansen was his name
She'll always remember
A warm autumn day
She was fifteen
Or almost fifteen
Had a mare named Patches
And she and Johnny went riding together
Down along the Chetco River
Low and mossy before the rains.
She can still taste the fried chicken
She made for their picnic
And how worried she was
Her lips would be all greasy
If he wanted to kiss her.
Tells me this as she polishes
The mahogany china closet
Over and over
The same spot
Till it shines.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky, born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). He grew up in the Soviet Union, and began writing poetry as a young man. He became popular in underground literary circles, but in 1964 he was arrested for "social parasitism" and sentenced to five years' hard labor in Siberia. Writers and politicians from countries around the world protested his imprisonment, and he was released after eighteen months.
In 1972 he left Russia for America, where he taught at several universities. He had translated English poetry from the time he was a teenager, so he was already fluent in English when he arrived in America, but it took several years before he began writing poems primarily in English. He said he wrote in English as a form protest against the Soviet Union, and also so he could reach a wider audience. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, and from 1991 to 1992 he served as the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Brodsky said, "Were we to choose our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. I believe . . . that for someone who has read a lot of Dickens to shoot his like in the name of an idea is harder than for someone who has read no Dickens."
He also said, "Every writing career starts as a personal quest for sainthood, for self-betterment. Sooner or later, and as a rule quite soon, a man discovers that his pen accomplishes a lot more than his soul."
And he said, "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them."
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer William Trevor, born in Mitchelstown, Ireland (1928). His collections of short stories include The Day We Got Drunk on Cake and Other Stories (1967) and Beyond the Pale (1981); and his novels include Felicia's Journey (1994) and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002).
He started out as a sculptor. He exhibited his work in Dublin and was commissioned to sculpt relief carvings for churches. But eventually he got tired of sculpture; he wanted to create works of art that dealt more directly with human beings, and so he started writing. His first major novel came out in 1964—The Old Boys, about eight men over eighty years old who meet at a reunion at their old public school.
Trevor has gone on to write many more novels and short stories. He's known for writing about ordinary people in Ireland and England who find themselves trapped by their circumstances. He said, "All my writing is about noncommunication—which is very sad and very funny."
Trevor's story "Mrs Acland's Ghosts" begins: "Mr Mockler was a tailor. He carried on his business in a house that after twenty-five years of mortgage arrangements had finally become his: 22 Juniper Street, SW 17. He had never married and since he was now sixty-three it seemed likely that he never would. In an old public house, the Charles the First, he had a drink every evening with his friends Mr Uprichard and Mr Tile, who were tailors also. He lived in his house in Juniper Street with his cat Sam, and did his own cooking and washing and cleaning: he was not unhappy."
Trevor said, "I am not much interested in myself either as a person or as a writer. I tend rather to write and to leave it at that. . . . Writing . . . suffers from too much introspective attention."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®