Jan. 25, 2007
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Poems: "secret" and "understudy" by Beverly Rollwagen, from She Just Wants. © Nodin Press. Reprinted with permission.
She just wants to know your secret.
She won't tell if you've had an affair,
or your face lifted, or when you last made
love. She won't tell if you're pilfering
from the office, or gambling when you're
supposed to be at the hospital visiting
your mother, or what you would do
for money. Strangers tell her the most
unlikely things, and she never repeats
them. Once, a woman told her she
carried a gun. Silver with a mother-of
pearl inlay on the handle, a little jewel.
She opened her purse, and the gun
rested in its own velvet pocket, ready and
dangerous. Like every secret.
She just wants an understudy, a body
double for the days when she does
not feel like appearing in any of the roles
she has assumed and/or been assigned.
She places an ad in the paper. Wanted:
one wife, mother, daughter, neighbor,
friend. Live-in OK. Own car necessary.
No lines to memorize; everything ad-
libbed. No days off.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Robert Burns, (books by this author) born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). Today, he is Scotland's national poet, although he started writing poetry to impress women. He later said, "My heart was completely tinder, and eternally lighted up by some Goddess or other."
As he got older, he watched how hard his father struggled to make a living as a farmer, suffering through bad weather and bad seed. Some years, his father had almost nothing to show for an entire year of backbreaking effort, and he died when Burns was 25 years old.
So Burns began to branch out from love poems to writing poems about the daily struggles of ordinary people. He was inspired by the traditional Scottish folk ballades his mother had sung him as a child, and he wrote in Scottish dialect rather than formal English.
And those poems made his name when he published them in his collection Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, which came out on the last day in July 1786. Word spread that he had written in the language of common people about common people, and farmers and maids began to save up their money to buy copies.
Burns spent much of the rest of his life traveling around the countryside collecting and rewriting the lyrics of folk songs for an anthology called The Scots Musical Museum. Because he considered the songs to be the property of all people, he refused to be paid for his work, and even for some of the most famous songs attributed to him, such as "Auld Lang Syne," he claimed only to have made corrections and additions.
It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf, (books by this author) born Virginia Stephen in London (1882). She never went to school, but her father chose books for her to read from his own library. Her brothers all went to the best universities, and she wrote letters to them about her reading. She was only allowed to move out of her family home after her father's death, when she was 22. She moved into a house with her brothers and sister, and instead of writing letters about what she'd been reading, she began to write literary criticism for the Times Literary Supplement, and she became one of the most accomplished literary critics of the era.
Woolf believed that the problem with 19th-century literature was that novelists had focused entirely on the clothing people wore and the food they ate and the things they did. She believed that the most mysterious and essential aspects of human beings were not their possessions or their habits, but their interior emotions and thoughts.
She considered her first few novels failures, but then in 1922, she began to read the work of Marcel Proust, who had just died that year. She wrote to a friend, "Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that!" Later that summer, she wrote in her diary, "There's no doubt in my mind, that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice."
Woolf's next book was her first masterpiece: Mrs. Dalloway (1925) about all the thoughts that pass through the mind of a middle-aged woman on the day she gives a party. Woolf went on to write many more novels, including To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931), but she was also one of the greatest essayists of her generation. In her long essay about women and literature, A Room of One's Own (1929), she wrote: "So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery."
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