Mar. 18, 2007

To Mecca with Love

by James Tracy

SUNDAY, 18 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "To Mecca with Love" by James Tracy, from Sparks and Codes. © Civil Defense Poetry. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To Mecca with Love

After work at H and M Market Liquor and Deli,
quietly pondering the choices life gives us—
a Twenty-First Century natural selection:

Coke or Pepsi
Seven-Up or Sprite
Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb
Old English or Guinness in a Can
Doritos or Encharitos
Lottery or Super-Lotto

Someone is haggling for a fourty-ouncer.
Someone is scratching a lottery ticket.
Someone calls out for spare change.

Behind the canned food aisles,
underneath the glow of the far security monitor,
I hear a man chant, the one who sold me
last night's beer, chips and tuna.

He is chanting devotion to Allah,
to Mecca with Love,
crouched on a cardboard flat;
a lone tear rests on his cheek.

A poster of a blonde straddling a beer can hears
his prayers.
The hum of the freezer harmonizes with him tonight.
Someone is still haggling for a fourty-ouncer.

I walk to the counter to the man
who will sell me
tonight's beer, chips and tuna.

He says, "How's it goin'?"
I say, "Pretty good, same as usual."
He says, "Anything else?"
I say, "Yeah, a newspaper."

Walking away I look at the front page headlines


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Wilfred Owen, (books by this author) born in Shropshire, England (1893). He's known for his poems about the violence and cruelty of war, and he was killed while fighting in World War I.

It's the birthday of George Plimpton, (books by this author) born in New York City (1927). Along with his friends Harold Humes, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas Guinzburg, and Donald Hall, he founded the literary magazine The Paris Review.

It's the birthday of John Updike, (books by this author) born in Shillington, Pennsylvania (1932). He grew up without any brothers or sisters and later said, "I'm sure that my capacity to fantasize and to make coherent fantasies, to have the patience to sit down day after day and to whittle a fantasy out of paper, all that relates to being an only child."

He also suffered from hay fever, psoriasis, and a stammer as a child, and after his father lost his job during the Great Depression, the family moved into a farmhouse 11 miles outside of town. The result was that Updike spent much of his childhood alone, either reading or living in a kind of dream world. His mother had been an aspiring writer for most of her life, and she encouraged Updike to write. He contributed to his high school newspaper, and every week he would read The New Yorker magazine.

He later said, "My true and passionate ambition was to be a cartoonist, first for Walt Disney, then for the syndicates, lastly for The New Yorker." He began sending his cartoons, poems, and stories to The New Yorker when he was still in high school. He won a scholarship to Harvard, and The New Yorker finally began accepting his work when he was a senior. Just after graduation, the magazine offered him a job.

But he quickly realized that he didn't enjoy living in New York City. So Updike moved with his wife to a small town outside of Boston and began to support his family writing short stories about his own childhood and about the suburban life of average, middle-class, white, Protestant families. He became known for his intricate descriptions of the most ordinary things. He later wrote, "[Those early short stories] were written on a manual typewriter ... in a one-room office ... between a lawyer and a beautician, above a cozy corner restaurant ... where my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me — to give the mundane its beautiful due."

Updike got a lot of attention for those early stories, collected in books such as Pigeon Feathers (1962). But what made him famous was that he chose to write in such detail about the love lives of ordinary middle-class suburban Americans, in novels such as Rabbit, Run (1960) and Couples (1968). Updike later said, "The artistic challenge to me, as I saw it in the late '50s and mid-'60s, was to try to describe sex honestly as a human transaction, as a human event, and try to place it on the continuum of the personality, to write about it freely but not necessarily as an endorsement of sex. I don't think sex really needs an endorsement." These books were controversial, but they became best-sellers, and Updike has gone on become one of the most celebrated writers of his lifetime.

He's published more than 20 novels, and more than 20 collections of short stories. His most recent book is Terrorist (2006).

John Updike said, "When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him."

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




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