Feb. 22, 2007

Small Town

by Midge Goldberg

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Poem: "Small Town" by Midge Goldberg, from Flume Ride. © David Roberts Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Small Town

                             For Alfred Nicol

What goes around comes around, I tell you.
One minute I'm squinting out the car window,
sure I recognize the mom of one
of my Little Leaguers, 'cept she's kissing some guy
not her husband under the parking lot light
down to the Stop and Shop, so I wave, big-like,
kind of being a jerk, although I wouldn't
ever really say anything about it.
Next thing I know, a siren, flashing red
and blue, some cops waving at me to stop.
I pull over, roll down the window, blinded
by the flashlight. They start to say they saw
me rolling through the stop, then get a whiff —
really, it's just the way the leather jacket
picks up all the smoke and the smell of the booze —
and I'm out of the car, walking the damn straight line,
saying the alphabet way too loud, then standing
on one leg (like I could do that sober)
counting one-mississippi, two-
mississippi with the kid's mom
across the street watching the whole damn thing
or at least part of it, 'cause I looked once
and saw her watching, then I looked again
during the mississippi's, and she was gone.
They let me go with a warning — gotta love 'em.
Maybe I'll give her a call. Probably not.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the author and illustrator Edward Gorey, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He's known for writing and illustrating many morbidly funny books, including The Beastly Baby (1962), The Wuggly Ump (1963), and The Epiplectic Bicycle (1969).

It's the birthday of the best-selling mystery novelist Richard North Patterson, (books by this author) born in Berkeley, California (1947). He studied law as a young man and became a securities lawyer. He wound up working for the Securities and Exchange Commission and helped look into whether members of the Nixon administration had violated any securities laws during the Watergate investigation. But by the time he was 29, he began to wonder if the legal profession was right for him. He was traveling all the time, and one day, as he was leaving on another business trip, he watched his one-year-old son waving to him through the screen door of their house, and he decided then and there to try to find a profession that would let him spend more time with his family.

He'd never published any fiction, or even tried to write anything, but he had recently read 17 novels by the mystery writer Ross MacDonald. So he took what he knew from the Watergate case and wrote an outline for a novel about a lawyer who investigates a possible stock scam involving a friend of the president. That novel was The Lasko Tangent (1979), and it became a minor best-seller.

Patterson wrote two more novels that were also successful, but his fourth novel didn't do as well, and he decided he wasn't sure he should be a writer after all. He went back to his law practice to make a living, but he kept thinking about writing, and finally after eight years of producing nothing, he took a three month vacation and cranked out more than 500 pages of a novel about a TV journalist accused of murdering a famous author. The result was his novel Degree of Guilt (1993), which became a huge best-seller.

Since then, most of his novels have been about the world of Washington, D.C. When asked why he likes to write so much about politicians and media personalities, Patterson said, "There is a school of fiction ... the premise of which is a guy gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, decides whether to leave his apartment and by the end of the story decides not to. That is not the kind of person or the kind of fiction that engages me." His most recent novel is Exile, which just came out last month.

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, (books by this author) born in Rockland, Maine (1892). Her mother couldn't afford to send her to college, but when she was 19, she entered a poem called "Renascence" in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. One of the judges was so impressed that he started a correspondence with her, fell in love, and nearly divorced his wife. Her poem didn't win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.

At Vassar, she was the most notorious girl on campus, famous for both her poetry and her habit of breaking rules. Vassar's president, Henry Noble McCracken, once wrote to her, "You couldn't break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don't want a banished Shelley on my doorstep." She wrote back, "Well, on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole."

She had red hair and green eyes and people had often stopped and stared at her on the street, she was so beautiful. When Millay moved to Greenwich Village after college, most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of those smitten men.

Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans, more like a rock star than a poet. One man who saw Millay perform her own work said, "The slender red-haired, gold-eyed Vincent Millay, dressed in a black-trimmed gown of purple silk, was now reading from a tooled leather portfolio, now reciting without aid of book or print, despite her broom-splint legs and muscles twitching in her throat and in her thin arms, in a voice that enchanted."

It's the birthday of poet Gerald Stern, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He began to write poetry in college but he didn't know any other poets, so he didn't try very hard to get anything published. He later said, "I was too harsh a critic of my own work, and I couldn't focus my thoughts and feelings in a way that would satisfy me."

He worked a series of teaching jobs but began to suffer from depression. Then, one day, in his late 30s, after a doctor's appointment, he suddenly realized that his life was almost half over, and he began to write poems furiously. He published his first poetry collection, The Pineys, in 1971, and has gone on to write many more collections, including Leaving Another Kingdom (1990), Bread Without Sugar (1992), and Odd Mercy (1995).

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