Apr. 17, 2005
Poem: "Fix" by Alicia Suskin Astriker, from No Heaven. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.
The puzzled ones, the Americans, go through their lives
Buying what they are told to buy,
Pursuing their love affairs with the automobile,
Baseball and football, romance and beauty,
Enthusiastic as trained seals, going into debt, struggling
True believers in liberty, and also security,
And of course sexcheating on each other
For the most part only a little, mostly avoiding violence
Except at a vast blue distance, as between bombsight and earth,
Or on the violent screen, which they adore.
Those who are not Americans think Americans are happy
Because they are so filthy rich, but not so.
They are mostly puzzled and at a loss
As if someone pulled the floor out from under them,
They'd like to believe in God, or something, and they do try.
You can see it in their white faces at the supermarket and the gas station
Not the immigrant faces, they know what they want,
Not the blacks, whose faces are hurt and proud
The white faces, lipsticked, shaven, we do try
To keep smiling, for when we're smiling, the whole world
Smiles with us, but we feel we've lost
That loving feeling. Clouds ride by above us,
Rivers flow, toilets work, traffic lights work, barring floods, fires
And earthquakes, houses and streets appear stable
So what is it, this moon-shaped blankness?
What the hell is it? America is perplexed.
We would fix it if we knew what was broken.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). He's best known for his play Our Town (1938), about a woman who dies and gets to look back on her life and realize how much she failed to notice. Our Town was one of the first major Broadway plays to use almost no stage scenery, so that the audience had to imagine the world in which the characters lived. Wilder said, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind not in things, not in 'scenery'... [a play] needs only five square feet of boarding and a passion to know what life means to us."
Thornton Wilder said, "I am not interested in...such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions."
It's the birthday of the woman who wrote under the name Isak Dinesen, born Karen Dinesen on a rural estate called Rungsted near Copenhagen, Denmark (1885). Her grandfather was a friend of Hans Christian Andersen. Her father committed suicide when she was 10 years old, and she spent the rest of her childhood in a house full of women: her mother, her grandmother, and all her aunts. As a girl, she loved listening to stories about Danish mythology, ghosts, or the magical powers of women.
As a young woman, she and her husband moved to Africa to try being colonial farmers. In order to pass the time there she wrote her first collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales (1934). The book was full of wild, magical stories. One story is about a group of people telling jokes while trying to survive a flood. Another is about a woman who exchanges her soul with an ape. Dinesen said, "Truth is for tailors and shoemakers...I, on the contrary, have always held that the Lord has a penchant for masquerades."
Dinesen had written Seven Gothic Tales in English, and the book made her famous in the United States and England. But when she translated it into Danish, the critics in Denmark attacked it as shallow fantasy. She kept copies of the negative reviews for the rest of her life.
Her American publisher wanted her to write a new book as soon as possible, to capitalize on her success, so she decided to write about her experiences in Africa. Instead of writing an ordinary memoir, she wrote about her time in Africa as though it was a half-remembered dream in her book Out of Africa (1937).
She wrote, "Looking back on a sojourn in the African high-lands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.
And, "[I watched] elephants...pacing along as if they had an appointment at the end of the world...[and I once saw a] lion...crossing the grey plain on his way home from the kill, drawing a dark wake in the silvery grass, his face still red up to the ears."
It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, born in New York City (1928). Her parents were both Jewish immigrants from Russia, and they fell in love when her father became ill with influenza and her mother took care of him. Both her parents worked as pharmacists, and Ozick grew up in the care of her grandmother, who was always telling her stories. Ozick once said that as soon as she was conscious of being alive she knew she was a writer. She claimed to have read Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women more than a thousand times, fantasizing about becoming a writer like the main character, Jo.
In college, she became obsessed with Henry James, and she spent seven years trying to write a novel in his style. She said, "[I was] sunk in an immense dream of immense achievement...[I had become] an unnatural writing-beast." She finally gave up on that novel and started another, and it became her first published book Trust (1966). She was 38 years old.
She has gone on to write several more novels full of Jewish mysticism and history, such as The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), and The Puttermesser Papers (1997), but she's perhaps best known for her essays, collected in Art and Ardor (1983) Metaphor and Memory (1989). Her most recent book is Heir to the Glimmering World (2004).
She said, "I believe a writer can weave in and out of genresdo it all. It is a gluttonous point of view, to be sure. Then again, when it comes to writing, that is what I truly am and nothing less: a glutton."
She also said, "The sentence is my primary element, my tool, goal, bliss. Each new sentence is a heart-in-the mouth experiment."
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