Monday

Nov. 15, 2004

Atavistic

by Irene McKinney

Monday, 15 NOVEMBER, 2004
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Poem: Poem: "Atavistic" by Irene McKinney, from Vivid Companion © Vandalia Press. Reprinted with permission.

Atavistic

I wanted to walk without clothing
in the woods beside the creek,
and to come to the barn at night

and sleep beside the horses, curled
in the smell and scratch of hay
with the bitch and pups.

The life of the house was flat,
filled with monotonous talking,
passing to and fro among the rooms,

and for what. My mother hated
animals, the way they ate the
food and dirtied the floor.

They were her enemies; she fought
their right to be there and
would have wiped them off the earth

if she could have. If a cat or a dog
came too close to the back door she
threw scalding water on it, and

was righteous in her anger, shouting
that they were not human and
didn't feel real pain.

If we must choose sides, I said
As a child, I take
The side of the animals.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the first woman ever taken seriously by the American art world Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887). She studied art in college and then supported herself teaching art at various colleges, but she found that teaching left her no time for her own work, and turpentine smell of the art classrooms made her sick. She went for months and years on end without painting anything, only to start over again and try something new.

Without her knowledge, a series of her charcoal drawings wound up in the hands of the photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz. Looking at the drawings, he shouted, "Finally, a woman on paper!" He put the drawings in his art gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City without even asking permission. Suddenly, Georgia O'Keeffe, an unknown twenty-nine-year-old art teacher, became the talk of the American art world.

At first, she was angry that her work had been without her permission, but after she met Stieglitz, they hit it off, and eventually got married. She moved to New York, and started to produce the giant paintings of flowers for which she is known. She said, "I only paint [flowers] because they're cheaper than models and they don't move."

On a trip to Taos, New Mexico, O'Keeffe fell in love with the desert. She felt that the thin, dry air helped her to see better, and she spent the rest of her career to painting desert mountains, flowers, stones, and skulls.


It's the birthday of Marianne Moore, born in Kirkwood, Missouri (1887). Her father was an engineer and inventor who had spent his life trying to build a smokeless furnace. When his business failed, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to an institution for the mentally ill. Marianne Moore was born just after her parents had separated, and she never met her father.

She went with her mother to live with her grandfather, the pastor of a Presbyterian Church. She had started writing poetry by the time she was eight years old. One of her first known poems was addressed to Santa Claus, requesting a horn for her brother and a doll for herself, in rhyme. When she was nine years old, her mother wrote in a letter, "She dotes on poetry to a horrible degree. I know we shall yet have a poetess in the family, and finish our days languishing in an attic."

She went to Bryn Mawr College, where she hoped to study English literature, but after a professor wrote a disparaging comment on one of her papers, she switched to biology. Working in a laboratory had a profound effect on her writing. She said, "Precision, economy of statement, logic...drawing and identifying, liberated [my] imagination."

After college, Moore got a series of jobs teaching typing and bookkeeping, and she contributed poems to Bryn Mawr's alumni magazine. Then, in 1915, she published two poems in The Egoist, an influential literary magazine which was also publishing the early work of James Joyce at the time. Her work caught the attention of modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and she moved to Greenwich Village to join the literary scene there. She became friends with poets such as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. She went to parties every night, and attended art shows and exhibitions, even though she went on living with her mother and read the Bible every day.

Her first collection Poems (1921) was published without her knowledge by the poet Hilda Doolittle, who admired her work. Her poetry was often compared to modern painting, and she was known for her eccentric titles, including "Holes Bored by Scissors in a Work Bag," "In 'Designing a Cloak to Cloak His Designs,' You Wrested from Oblivion, a Coat of Immortality for Your Own Use," and "To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity."

She often just wrote about random objects, such as a picture of an Egyptian desert rat, a can of shoe-polish, a magazine advertisement for Missouri hogs, or a mechanical crow. She's perhaps best known for her poem that begins, "The Mind...is an enchanted thing / like the glaze on a / katydid-wing."

Moore became a celebrity poet in her old age. The Ford Motor Company hired her to come up with a name for a new automobile. She suggested "Utopian Turtletop" but Ford decided to call the car the Edsel.

She was an avid baseball fan for all of her adult life and, when she was eighty-one years old, she was asked to throw out the first ball for the opening day at Yankee Stadium. She threw a sinking slider. She said that one of the most beautiful things in the world was, "That eight-shaped stitch with which the outer leather is drawn tight on a baseball."

Marianne Moore's Complete Poems came out in 1981.

She wrote, "Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads."


It's the birthday of the poet Ted Berrigan, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1934). He was the author of many collections of poetry including Poems, In Brief (1971), Red Wagon (1976), and A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988).


It's the birthday of the novelist J. G. [James Graham] Ballard, born in Shanghai, China (1930). He's the author of many surrealist science fiction novels, including The Crystal World (1966), Crash (1973), and The Unlimited Dream Company (1979), but he's best known for the novel he wrote about his own childhood Empire of the Sun (1984).

He grew up in China, where his father was an executive with a British textile manufacturer. He lived in a houseful of Chinese servants and a chauffeur drove him everywhere he wanted to go. He said, "Shanghai [was like] a cross between Las Vegas and ancient Rome, full of American cars and American exuberance...There were dozens of casinos and radio stations, unlimited advertising and publicity stunts, bizarre parades."

Then, when he was twelve years old, World War II broke out and Japan invaded China. Ballard and his parents were placed in an internment camp. They lived in a tiny room and ate barely enough food to survive. Shanghai went from being a city of extravagance to a city of empty apartment blocks, of abandoned factories, of empty airfields.

After the war, Ballard's family moved back to England, a country he had only read about. He had imagined England was a country full of beautiful rolling meadows and village greens, and when his ship docked at Southhampton, he thought they had come to the wrong country. On the train to London, he watched the bombed out landscapes rolling past his window. He said, "Everything was much greyer and grimmer and darker and colder than I had been led to believe... Even the sun seemed to be grey, and it rained perpetually. Everyone looked small and tired and white-faced and badly nourished."

Ballard started writing fiction in the 1950s, at a time England was rebuilding itself and English culture was beginning to absorb things like television, mess merchandising, and supermarkets. Ballard said, "The so-called mainstream novel wasn't really looking at [modern life]. The only form of fiction which was trying to make head or tail of what was going on in our world was science-fiction."

Ballard became the leading figure of the new British school of science fiction, which tried to write science fiction about the real world, not just alien planets. Ballard said, "The moral imperative facing any writer interested in science or technology should be an imaginative response to the world five minutes away from us, not some invented planet with alien life forms."

Many critics consider his masterpiece to be the novel Crash (1973), about a cult of people obsessed with car accidents. When he submitted Crash for publication, the first person who read it said, "This author is beyond psychiatric help."

J.G. Ballard's most recent novel is Super-Cannes, which came out in 2002.

He said, "Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century."


Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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