Thursday

Nov. 16, 2006

Alcatraz

by Sharon Olds

THURSDAY, 16 NOVEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Alcatraz" by Sharon Olds, from The Gold Cell. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Alcatraz

When I was a girl, I knew I was a man
because they might send me to Alcatraz
and only men went to Alcatraz.
Every time we drove to the city I'd
see it there, white as a white
shark in the shark-rich Bay, the bars like
milk-white ribs. I knew I had pushed my
parents too far, my inner badness had
spread like ink and taken me over, I could
not control my terrible thoughts,
terrible looks, and they had often said
that they would send me there-maybe the very next
time I spilled my milk, Ala
Cazam
, the iron doors would slam, I'd be
there where I belonged, a girl-faced man in the
prison no one had escaped from. I did not
fear the other prisoners,
I knew who they were, men like me who had
spilled their milk one time too many,
not been able to curb their thoughts—
what I feared was the horror of the circles: circle of
sky around the earth, circle of
land around the Bay, circle of
water around the island, circle of
sharks around the shore, circle of
outer walls, inner walls,
iron girders, steel bars,
circle of my cell around me, and there at the
center, the glass of milk AND the guard's
eyes upon me as I reached out for it.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the playwright George S. Kaufman, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1889). Known as "the hitmaker" in his lifetime, he co-wrote more hit plays than anyone else in the history of Broadway, including Animal Crackers (1928), Strike Up the Band (1930), and You Can't Take It With You (1938).

Kaufman's mother was a severe hypochondriac, and he spent much of his childhood at the foot of her supposed deathbed, surrounded by nurses and psychologists. She wouldn't let him play with other children, for fear of germs, and she wouldn't let him drink milk either. The only beverage he was allowed was boiled water. He grew up extremely thin and extremely shy.

By the time he was an adult, he'd become obsessed with cleanliness of his person and his surrounding. He was terrified of being touched and he never shook hands. He was so afraid of dying in his sleep that he often didn't sleep for days.

But despite all his neuroses, he had a talent for writing humor. He got a column in The Washington Times, and he kept his job as a theater critic for years, even after he had begun writing and producing his own successful plays.

Of the dozens of plays Kaufman wrote in his lifetime, he only wrote one by himself. He said, "Collaboration is marriage without sex, and subject to many vexations. But pay no attention to them, because in one respect at least it is wonderful. The total result is frequently far more than the combined abilities of two people might give you."

He was such a meticulous rewriter and polisher, that he was never satisfied with a script even up till the last minute. Even on the most triumphant of opening nights, he could always be found backstage, pale and terrified that the play would be a flop.


It's the birthday of the novelist Andrea Barrett, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1954). She grew up on Cape Cod and spent most of her time near the ocean, fascinated by sea life. She decided to study biology in college and zoology in grad school. She went on to write about botanists, oceanographers and geologists in novels such as The Forms of Water (1993) and The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998).

Andrea Barrett said, "It's hard to explain how much one can love writing. If people knew how happy it can make you, we would all be writing all the time. It's the greatest secret of the world."


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

 









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