Dec. 15, 2004
Man of the House
Poems: "Pretty Happy" by Peter Johnson, from Pretty Happy! © White Pine Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission, and "Man of the House" by Bob Hicok, from The Legend of Light, © University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission.
I have no siblings who've killed themselves, a few breakdowns here
and there, my son sometimes talking back to me, but, in general, I'm
pretty happy. And if the basement leaks, and fuses fart out when the
coffee machine comes on, and if the pastor beats us up with the same
old parables, and raccoons overturn the garbage cans and ham it up at
2 o'clock in the morning while some punk is cutting wires on my
car stereo, I can still say, I'm pretty happy.
Pretty happy! Pretty happy! I whisper to my wife at midnight,
waking to another night noise, reaching for the baseball bat I keep hid-
den under our bed.
Man of the House
It was a misunderstanding.
I got into bed, made love
with the woman I found there,
called her honey, mowed the lawn,
had three children, painted
the house twice, fixed the furnace,
overcame an addiction to blue pills,
read Spinoza every night
without once meeting his God,
buried one child, ate my share
of Jell-o and meatloaf,
went away for nine hours a day
and came home hoarding my silence,
built a ferris wheel in my mind,
bolt by bolt, then broke it
just as it spun me to the top.
Turns out I live next door.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the children's book author Betty Smith, born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). She grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where as a child she got to know all the people in her neighborhood: the junk dealer and the candy store owners and the shopkeepers. She moved away from Brooklyn as a teenager and went on to study at the University of Michigan, and she eventually wound up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
She hadn't lived in Brooklyn for almost twenty years when, in 1937, she read Thomas Wolfe's novel about his childhood, Of Time and the River. She said, "[Suddenly] it all came back, then, like a flood. All of Brooklyn." She decided she had to write a novel about her own childhood, but since she didn't have much time to work on it, she only wrote for one hour a day for an entire year.
The result was her novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), about a girl named Francie Nolan, growing up in a Brooklyn tenement house. She wrote, "The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock...It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts."
Betty Smart said that she always cherished her memories of Brooklyn, but she never wanted to live there again. She said, "Brooklyn, seems wonderful when you're away from it."
It's the birthday of poet Muriel Rukeyser, born in New York City (1913). She had written a few poems as a young woman when she started working as a journalist. One of her first big assignments was to cover the trial for rape of nine black men in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. While she was covering the case, she was arrested by police and charged with "inciting the Negros to insurrection."
The incident inspired her to write her first major poem "The Trial," and she devoted the rest of her life to activism and politically charged poetry. She traveled the country during the Great Depression, writing about the struggling poor. She went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. She was arrested in Washington, D.C. for protesting the war in Vietnam, and she went to South Korea in the 1970's to rally support political poet there who had been sentenced to death.
Over five decades, she wrote over 15 collections of poetry, including The Green Wave (1948), The Speed of Darkness (1968), and Breaking Open (1973). A new collection of her work, Selected Poems, came out this year.
Rukeyser said, "If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger."
And, "The universe is made up of stories, not atoms."
It's the birthday of Irish writer Edna O'Brien, born in County Clare in the west of Ireland (1932). She grew up in an isolated, rural community, where people were encouraged never to read anything other than religious books. But one woman in town had torn the chapters out of Gone with the Wind, and passed the chapters around so that everyone could read them. Those loose leaf chapters were the first fiction Edna O'Brien ever read.
She went to a convent as a young girl to become a nun, but she really wanted to be a saint. She said, "The ordinary trials of a nun were not enough for me." But eventually she decided to become a pharmacist. She believes that she is a better writer today because she didn't study literature in college. She said, "Writing is primarily seeing something and setting it down for the first time, and if one has the habit and the mantle of culture on one, then it'll never be for the first time. It'll never be quite fresh."
She married a novelist when she was twenty, against her family's wishes, and then wrote her first novel, Country Girls (1960) in just three weeks. She said, "It wrote itself. My arm just held the pen." It was one of the first books by an Irish woman to explore sexuality in such frank detail, and it was called a smear on Irish womanhood and was burned at churches in O'Brien's childhood home. But readers in Britain and America loved her work, and O'Brien has gone on to write many more successful novels, including Time and Tide (1992), Wild Decembers (1999), and In the Forest (2002).
Edna O'Brien also said, "It's a very baffling act, writing. Flaubert looked at the skies and spent three weeks trying to describe one. I mean, the sky exists anyhow; why should one want to put it down on paper?...It is as if the life lived has not been lived until it is set down in...words."
And, "When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious."
It's the birthday of one of the pulp fiction writer Donald Goines, born in Detroit, Michigan (1937). He quit school to join the Air Force, and then got addicted to heroin while serving in east Asia. When he came back to the U.S., he became a pimp, card sharp, auto thief, armed robber, bootlegger, and all-around hustler. He was arrested fifteen times in fifteen years, and served seven terms in prison.
While he was in jail, he began writing novels based on his experiences on the streets of Detroit. He wrote about hit men, gangsters, drug addicts, and other criminals. He distributed his writing among his fellow prisoners, and they liked it so much he decided to try to get it published. His first novel, Dopefiend: The Story of a Black Junkie, appeared in 1971. He wrote fifteen more novels in five years, including Never Die Alone (1974) and Daddy Cool (1974). His books were originally sold, not in bookstores, but in neighborhood barbershops, liquor stores and pool halls, and they managed to sell over 5 million copies. All his books are still in print today.
It's the birthday of American playwright Maxwell Anderson, born in Atlantic, Pennsylvania (1888). He wrote many plays, most of them in verse, including Mary of Scotland (1935), Key Largo (1939), and Both Your Houses (1933). He said, "If you practice an art, be proud of it and make it proud of you... It may break your heart, but it will fill your heart before it breaks it; it will make you a person in your own right."
And, "A [writer] is usually thought of as a slightly benighted child of nature who somehow or other did it all on a Ouija board."
It's the birthday of the civil engineer, Gustave Eiffel, born in Dijon, France (1832). He was one of the early pioneers in using metal to construct bridges, and he specialized in creating bridges with dramatic steel arches and spidery latticework. Eventually, he began to use his techniques to build structural scaffolding for buildings, and he built the inner scaffolding that supports the Statue of Liberty.
In 1889, the French government hosted the World's Fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and they asked Gustave Eiffel to design and build something to symbolize the occasion. He decided to build the largest tower in the world at 1,000 feet high. He built the scaffolding out of wrought iron and, instead of covering the scaffolding with old-fashioned marble and granite, he took the radical step of leaving the scaffolding exposed. He had calculated that it would be easier to build such a tall tower if it were full of holes for the wind to blow through.
Many writers and artists in Paris thought the tower was horrifically ugly. Hundreds of people signed a petition that said, "(We) protest with all our force, with all our indignation, in the name of unappreciated French taste, in the name of menaced French art and history, against the erection, in the very heart of our capitol, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower." But 2 million people visited it the year it opened, and today about six million people climb to the top every year.
It still holds up well to the wind. In 1999, Paris was hit by a terrible storm that knocked down more than 100,000 trees. A record wind speed of 133 mph was recorded at the top of the tower. But the tower itself only swayed 9 centimeters.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®