Saturday

Jul. 8, 2006

1959

by Arlene Weiner

SATURDAY, 8 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "1959" by Arlene Weiner from Escape Velocity. © Ragged Sky Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

1959

Is it hot enough for you?
the neighbor said on the stairs
to the girl in gloves. Hot enough
for you?
said the subway conductor,
closing the doors. Hot
enough?
the elevator man
to the girl in a shirtwaist dress,
one of many white girls,
in summer gloves, hair damp
on her neck, on her way
to the typing pool. She laughed
for the colored man moving
the brass control through its arc.

In the big room where the men
yelled into phones at debtors
fans turned. Ribbons fluttered
on the round cages to indicate breezes.
In the center of the room
an iron mesh, floor to ceiling,
surrounded the typists. Little jackets
hung on the backs of their chairs.

After work, elevator, subway,
stairs, supper. Maybe a movie,
Twenty degrees cooler inside.
Maybe an Esther Williams.

They never said, Fast enough
for you? Deep enough? High enough?

They never said then, Far enough?
Far enough for any of us?



Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer J.F. (James Farl) Powers (books by this author), born in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917): a writer who didn't have a lot of readers in his lifetime because he wrote primarily about the lives of Catholic priests in Minnesota. Non-Catholics weren't particularly interested in his work, and Catholics tended to think he was too critical. But after his death in 1999, many critics said he should be ranked among the greatest and funniest fiction writers of the late twentieth century.

He grew up in town with few Catholics other than his own family and he later said, "The town was Protestant. The best people were Protestants and you felt that. That, to some extent, made a philosopher out of me. It made me mad." He was twenty-five when he published his first important short story, called "Lion, Harts, Leaping Does," about a priest named Father Didymus, who remains faithful even though he believes he's unworthy of God. The story was selected for the first edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology, and it was published in his first collection, The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947).

As he got older, his work just got funnier, and in 1962, he published his first novel, Morte D'Urban, about a priest named Father Urban Roche, who runs a parish in Great Plains in Minnesota, but who thinks of himself as a kind of businessman, using his position to get the best rooms in hotels and spending all his spare time playing golf. Morte D'Urban won the National Book Award, but it only sold 25,000 copies. Powers was deeply disappointed. He said, "I thought when I'd finished it that it was a good book—and I guess it was, because nobody bought it."

He only published two novels and three collections of stories in his lifetime. Saul Bellow once called him one of the five great writers in America, but by the time he died, most of his books had gone out of print. But his two novels have since been republished, and his stories have been collected in The Stories of J.F. Powers, which came out in 2000.

J.F. Powers was once asked by nun in an interview for The American Benedictine Review if he had any ideas about the role of the Catholic writer. He replied, "No, I'm afraid I don't, Sister, except that obviously he should not write junk."


It was on this day in 1918 that Ernest Hemingway was wounded while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I. He had wanted to serve as a soldier but he had bad eyesight so he volunteered as an ambulance driver. During the day, his main duty was delivering post cards and chocolates to the Italian soldiers on the front. Then, on this day in 1918, only one month after he'd arrived, Hemingway (books by this author) was passing out chocolates to Italian soldiers on the frontlines when he heard the sound of a trench mortar flying through the air. He later said that the explosion felt like a furnace door bursting open.

He received an official citation from the Italian Army for bravery, which said, "He rendered generous assistance to the Italian soldiers more seriously wounded by the same explosion and did not allow himself to be carried elsewhere until after they had been evacuated."

When he wrote to his parents to say what had happened, he tried to make light of the incident, saying, "Don't worry about me because it has been conclusively proved that I can't be killed." But Hemingway had numerous pieces of shrapnel removed from his leg and spent the next several weeks in the hospital. He also started suffering from insomnia. He was terrified that he might die in the night, and he couldn't sleep without a light on.

Hemingway traveled back to his parents' home in January 1919, still recuperating from his injury. He walked around with a cane, read everything he could get his hands on, and taught his sisters Italian swear words. He was a small-town war hero, and often spoke at schools and social clubs about his experience in the war. He always passed around his bloodstained, shrapnel-torn trousers.

The wound he received would go on to become the central event of his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), which he considered his best book, and his experiences in Italy appeared in many short stories as well. He later said, "In Italy, when I was at the war there ... my own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password."


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