Jan. 14, 2007

My Madonna

by Robert W. Service

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Poem: "My Madonna" by Robert W. Service, from The Best of Robert Service. © Dodd, Mead & Company. Reprinted with permission.

My Madonna

I haled me a woman from the street,
    Shameless, but, oh, so fair!
I bade her sit in the model's seat
    And I painted her sitting there.

I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
    I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
    If the Worst had been the Best.

She laughed at my picture and went away.
    Then came, with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, and I heard him say;
    "'Tis Mary, the Mother of God."

So I painted a halo round her hair,
    And I sold her and took my fee,
And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
    Where you and all may see.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Anchee Min, (books by this author) born in Shanghai, China (1957). She is the author of a memoir about growing up in communist China called Red Azalea (1994). The book was banned in China, but after its success here, she was invited back to her homeland to make some public appearances.

Min writes in English, even though she didn't speak it until she was 27 years old. She learned English when she came to the United States by watching Sesame Street and Oprah on television.

It's the birthday of columnist Maureen Dowd, (books by this author) born in Washington D.C. (1952). Just out of college, she got a job as an editorial assistant at the Washington Star newspaper. She spent two years writing obituaries and weather reports before she got promoted to reporter.

She was hired at The New York Times by the editor Anna Quindlen, and made her name with a story about presidential candidate Walter Mondale, his running mate Geraldine Ferraro, and their policy of absolutely never kissing each other, even on the cheek, in public. Focus groups had decided that it would be inappropriate. In that article, Dowd demonstrated her willingness to write news stories that included humorous detail and witty observations. At the time, humor was segregated to the op-ed page of the newspaper. But Dowd filled her articles with the kind of gossipy insider knowledge that reporters usually only shared with each other.

In 1995, she became the fourth woman in the history of The New York Times to have her own op-ed column. She's published several books of essays, including Are Men Necessary? (2005).

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Mary Robison, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1949). She grew up in Ohio with five brothers and two sisters. She ran away from home twice when she was young, one of those times going to Florida to look for Jack Kerouac. She always wanted to be a writer, and she kept journals and diaries and wrote poetry as a teenager.

She published a short story called "Sisters" in The New Yorker magazine in 1977, and within a few years she began to be lumped in with other writers such as Raymond Carver and Amy Hempl, who wrote about ordinary people in a stripped-down prose style. These writers were called minimalists, but Robison said, "I detested the term. I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting. It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in. They'd bring your name up just to kick you."

She published a few collections in the 1980s, including An Amateur's Guide to the Night (1983) and Believe Them (1988), and then suddenly, in the 1990s, she was struck with a terrible case of writer's block.

After a while of being unable to write anything, Robison began taking drastic measures. She started driving around in her car with a tape recorder, and whenever anything came into her head, she would just scream it into the tape recorder. Then she'd go home and write these things down on note cards. Eventually she had about a thousand note cards, and she realized that with a little work she could arrange them into a novel. The result was her book Why Did I Ever (2001), a very short novel told in 536 very short chapters.

It's the birthday of novelist John Dos Passos, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1896). Dos Passos attended Harvard, where he was a classmate of E. E. Cummings. He went to Spain to study architecture after he graduated, but with the outbreak of World War I, he worked as a volunteer ambulance driver instead, and that experience inspired his anti-war novels, One Man's Initiation (1920) and Three Soldiers (1921). His other books include Manhattan Transfer (1925) and the famous U.S.A. Trilogy, comprising The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936).

Dos Passos hated talking about the literary world and avoided what he called "talking shop." He said, "If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works."

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