Monday

Apr. 4, 2005

Bess

by Linda Pastan

MONDAY, 4 APRIL, 2005
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Poem: "Bess," by Linda Pastan from The Last Uncle (W.W. Norton).

Bess

When Bess, the landlord's black-eyed
daughter, waited for her highwayman
in the poem I learned by breathless
heart at twelve, it occurred to me

for the first time that my mild-eyed
mother Bess might have a life
all her own—a secret past
I couldn't enter, except in dreams.

That single sigh of a syllable
has passed like a keepsake
to this newest child, wrapped now
in the silence of sleep.

And in the dream I enter,
I could be holding my infant mother
in my arms: the same wide cheekbones,
the name indelible as a birthmark.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee (1968). King's friend Ralph Abernathy was in the room at the Lorraine Motel when King was shot on the balcony. Long afterward, he said he remembered the smell of the aftershave he had on his hands, and a sound like a firecracker from out on the balcony. It took several hours for the news to spread; a curfew had been declared in Memphis, and news crews had gone home. In Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy told his campaign audience the news; they wept. On Broadway, actors announced the death from the stage. There were riots in sixty cities.


It's the birthday of Vertamae Grosvenor, born in Hampton County, South Carolina (1938). She was the smaller of two premature twins, and her grandmother put her in a shoebox and fed her goat's milk out of an eyedropper. Her family spoke Gullah, a South Carolina dialect spoken by the descendents of slaves. She went to Paris at eighteen and bought yams one day from a Senegalese woman in an open-air market. When she asked the woman how to cook them, she realized she'd stumbled on a cuisine like the one she had grown up with, and she began to write about Gullah cooking and Sea Island traditions.

It's the birthday of Annie Dillard, born Annie Doak, in Pittsburgh (1945). Her first prose book, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.


It's the birthday of the missionary scholar William Smalley, born in Palestine (1923). In the early fifties he lived in the hills of Laos, and helped develop a way to write the Hmong language using the Roman alphabet. It's still the standard way to write Hmong.


It's the birthday, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915), of the great country-blues singer Muddy Waters. In 1941 and '42, he recorded for Alan Lomax, the folklorist of the library of Congress, and the experience emboldened him to move to Chicago to start his own music career. He played in various bands in bars on the south side of Chicago, and in 1950, he made the first recording for Chess Records, a tune called "Rolling Stone." He later became famous for songs like "Hoochie-Koochie Man," and "Got My Mojo Working."


It's the birthday of Dorothea Dix, born in Hampden, Maine (1802). She was the first person in the United States to suggest that mentally ill people were not criminals, and that prisons were not the best place to keep them. When she started to work for the construction of more asylums for the insane, there were only eleven such hospitals in the whole country. She never married and she never settled anywhere-she was too busy traveling throughout the country, visiting the ill in prisons and hospitals and talking to politicians

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