Apr. 2, 2007

The Changed Man

by Robert Phillips

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Poem: "The Changed Man" by Robert Phillips, from Spinach Days. © The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Changed Man

If you were to hear me imitating Pavarotti
in the shower every morning, you'd know
how much you have changed my life.

If you were to see me stride across the park,
waving to strangers, then you would know
I am a changed man—like Scrooge

awakened from his bad dreams feeling feather-
light, angel-happy, laughing the father
of a long line of bright laughs—

"It is still not too late to change my life!"
It is changed. Me, who felt short-changed.
Because of you I no longer hate my body.

Because of you I buy new clothes.
Because of you I'm a warrior of joy.
Because of you and me. Drop by

this Saturday morning and discover me
fiercely pulling weeds gladly, dedicated
as a born-again gardener.

Drop by on Sunday—I'll Turtlewax
your sky-blue sports car, no sweat. I'll greet
enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors

with a papal largesse. It's all because
of you. Because of you and me,
I've become one changed man.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Italian writer Giacomo Casanova, (books by this author) born in Venice (1725). He spent his early life traveling all over Europe. In Paris, his great personal charm helped him to win important friends, and he became director of the lottery, which helped make him wealthy. After some freelance spy work, he was arrested in Venice in 1755 and he was sentenced to five years in prison. But he managed to escape, and the news of his escape made him into a celebrity in Paris.

In 1785, Casanova retired to a castle in Bohemia and became a librarian. While there, he set out to write his memoirs. He said it was "the sole remedy" he possessed "to avoid going mad or dying of sorrow." At his death, he left 4,000 pages of manuscript behind, some of which was later published under the title The History of My Life. Stories taken from his autobiography have made him famous and have made him into a legendary hero famous for seducing women.

It's the birthday of the author of many of our best-known fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, (books by this author) born in Odense, Denmark (1805). He's best known to us today as the author of numerous stories, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "The Princess and the Pea," and "The Nightingale." But he spent most of his life trying to write serious literary novels for adults.

He'd just finished his first novel, and was waiting for it to be published, when he needed some cash to pay his rent. So he quickly dashed off a pamphlet containing four fairy tales. And to his surprise, the pamphlet became a huge success. It was such a big success that he published a new collection of fairy tales every Christmas for the next few years.

Andersen's fairy tales transformed the way Danish was written. Instead of using the formal "King's Danish," he wrote the way ordinary people spoke, and his fairy tales are full of humorous details that seem unnecessary to the story. "The Ugly Duckling" begins, "It was so lovely out in the country — it was summer! And the wheat was yellow, the oats were green, hay was stacked up in the green meadows, and the stork walked about on his long, red legs and spoke Egyptian, for he had learned the language from his mother."

It's the birthday of novelist Èmile Zola, (books by this author) born in Paris (1840). He grew up in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. He got a scholarship to attend a university, but he failed the exam that would have allowed him to study law. He took a job as a copy clerk in an excise office, but found the work totally dehumanizing, so he quit. For 19 months, Zola was totally unemployed. He survived by pawning almost everything he owned. He also begged for money from family and friends. For food, he occasionally caught sparrows on the roof of his building and roasted them on the end of a curtain rod.

He eventually got a job working for a friend of his father's in the publicity department of a publishing house, where he learned that scandal is often the best way to sell a book. So he wrote his first novel about a relationship he'd had with a prostitute. And just as he'd hoped, numerous book critics attacked him for writing filth. The book didn't become a big success, but it gave Zola a public profile, and he told friends that he was proud to be a writer whom the public reads with horror.

He developed a new school of literature called "naturalism," in which he tried to write about the world by observing it directly. He became one of the first writers to do extensive field research for his fiction. He used this style to write a series of novels about the life of an extended family, with all its legitimate and illegitimate branches. He named the series after the family, Les Rougon-Macquart. His best-known novel in this country is Germinal (1885), about the life of coal miners in the north of France and the birth of the labor movement. It was the first major work of fiction ever written about a labor strike.

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