Jun. 1, 2004
The Best Slow Dancer
Poem: "The Best Slow Dancer," by David Wagoner, from Traveling Light. © University of Illinois Press. Reprinted with permission.
The Best Slow Dancer
Under the sagging clotheslines of crepe paper
By the second string of teachers and wallflowers
In the school gym across the key through the glitter
Of mirrored light three-second rule forever
Suspended you danced with her the best slow dancer
Who stood on tiptoe who almost wasn't there
In your arms like music she knew just how to answer
The question mark of your spine your hand in hers
The other touching that place between her shoulders
Trembling your countless feet lightfooted sure
To move as they wished wherever you might stagger
Without her she turned in time she knew where you were
In time she turned her body into yours
As you moved from thigh to secrets to breast yet never
Where you would be for all time never closer
Than your cheek against her temple her ear just under
Your lips that tried all evening long to tell her
You weren't the worst one not the boy whose mother
Had taught him to count to murmur over and over
One slide two slide three slide now no longer
The one in the hallway after class the scuffler
The double clubfoot gawker the mouth breather
With the wrong haircut who would never kiss her
But see her dancing off with someone or other
Older more clever smoother dreamier
Not waving a sister somebody else's partner
Lover while you went floating home through the air
To lie down lighter than air in a moonlit shimmer
Alone to whisper yourself to sleep remember.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Colleen McCullough, born in Wellington, Australia (1937). She came from a rural, working class family that wandered around Australia until finally settling in Sydney when Colleen was twelve years old. She wanted to be a doctor, but she wasn't allowed to go to medical school because of a skin condition, and so she went into neurophysiology, the study of the nervous system.
She got a job at a hospital in London, and while she was there she met an American professor who was so impressed with her ability that he invited her to manage his laboratories back at Yale. She did all kinds of work in the laboratories, but because she was a woman she was paid about half as much as her co-workers. So, to try to make a little extra money, she decided to write a novel.
Her first novel, Tim, was published in 1974. That book sold well, but her first great success was The Thorn Birds (1977), an epic novel that tells the story of an Australian family across three generations. It became an international bestseller and enabled McCullough to quit her job and devote all of her time to writing. She's gone on to write many more novels, including An Indecent Obsession (1982), A Creed for the Third Milennium (1985) and Caesar (1997).
It's the birthday of poet John Masefield, born in Ledbury, England (1878). Both of his parents died when he was young, and he was sent off to live with his aunt and uncle. When he was thirteen years old, he left home to work on a merchant navy ship, the HMS Conway. He didn't like sailing very much, but he loved listening to the other sailors tell stories, and it was while he was working on the ship that he decided he wanted to be a writer.
After a few years of sailing, he settled in New York City. He worked long hours in a carpet factory, but during this time he bought and read about twenty books a week. After two years he went back to England to try to become a poet. He fell in love with the poetry of W.B. Yeats, and arranged to meet Yeats at his home in London. The two became good friends, and Yeats helped get Masefield's first poems published in literary magazines. Masefield's first book of poems, Salt-Water Ballads, came out in 1902. He became one of the most popular poets in England, known for writing about the sea, and in 1930 he became Poet Laureate of England.
It's the birthday of Brigham Young, born in Wittingham, Vermont (1801). He grew up in a strict, religious household in upstate New York. His parents made him read the Bible every day, and on Sundays he wasn't allowed to walk more than half a mile. He once said, "I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the highway to hell if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it."
He helped out his family on the farm, trapped animals for fur, fished, built sheds, and dug cellars. As a young man he became a carpenter, and he helped build the town prison and the theological seminary in Auburn, New York. He got married in 1824, when he was twenty-three, and he and his wife joined the Methodist Church.
In April of 1830, Samuel Smith, the brother of the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, passed through Young's town to distribute copies of the Book of Mormon. Smith gave a copy to Brigham's brother Phineas, and the book circulated through the Young family until it finally came into the hands of Brigham Young. He was skeptical at first, but two years later, he was baptized as a Latter-day Saint. He gave his first sermon just a week after his baptism; he later said, "[After I was baptized] I wanted to thunder and roar out the Gospel to the nations. It burned in my bones like fire pent-up, so I [commenced] to preach. . . . Nothing would satisfy me but to cry abroad in the world, what the Lord was doing in the latter days."
In the summer of 1832, Brigham Young and his brother decided to make the 325-mile journey from New York to Kirtland, Ohio to meet the leader of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. On the evening of their arrival, Smith invited them to pray with him. During their prayer session, Brigham Young spoke in incomprehensible tongues, and Smith declared that it was a gift of God.
A couple of years later, Smith appointed Young to be the leader of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, a sort of traveling council whose job it was to spread the message of Mormonism. He traveled all across the country, in Canada, and in England, trying to win converts. When Smith was killed in 1844, Young was made President of the Mormon Church. Two years later, after being threatened and attacked by locals in various Midwestern towns, he led a group on a trek to the West, searching for a place to set up the Mormon headquarters. He finally decided on Salt Lake City, Utah. Young said, "We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay."