Apr. 3, 2007

Unwise Purchases

by George Bilgere

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Poem: "Unwise Purchases" by George Bilgere from Haywire. © Utah State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
not doing much of anything: the boxed set
of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:

The French-cut silk shirts
which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
and make me look exactly
like the kind of middle-aged man
who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:

The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
the mysteries of the heavens
but which I only used once or twice
to try to find something heavenly
in the windows of the high-rise down the road,
and which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
when it could be examining the Crab Nebula:

The 30-day course in Spanish
whose text I never opened,
whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,

save for Tape One, where I never learned
whether the suave American
conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
at a Madrid hotel about the possibility
of obtaining a room
actually managed to check in.

I like to think
that one thing led to another between them
and that by Tape Six or so
they're happily married
and raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.

But I'll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
for a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,

and I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
there lives a woman with, say,
a fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
drying in their tubes

on the table where the violin
she bought on a whim
lies entombed in the permanent darkness
of its locked case
next to the abandoned chess set,

a woman who has always dreamed of becoming
the kind of woman the man I've always dreamed of becoming
has always dreamed of meeting.

And while the two of them discuss star clusters
and Cézanne, while they fence delicately
in Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,

she and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
fixing up a little risotto,
enjoying a modest cabernet,
while talking over a day so ordinary
as to seem miraculous.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the longest-running newspaper columnist in American history, Herb Caen, (books by this author) born in Sacramento, California (1916). He wrote primarily for the San Francisco Chronicle, publishing 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for almost 60 years. He only took a break to serve in World War II.

Herb Caen wrote, "Living in San Francisco [is] a gift from the gods."

It's the birthday of the American novelist Leon Uris, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1924). He began writing in the early 1950s, inspired by his four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. His first novel, Battle Cry (1953), was his attempt to show the realistic lives of soldiers fighting on the front lines. He also wrote Exodus (1958), which deals with the struggle to establish and defend the state of Israel.

It's the birthday of one of the publishing giants of the 20th century, Henry R. Luce, born in the Shantung province of China (1898). His father was a Presbyterian missionary, and Luce was born while his parents were doing missionary work in China. He went to boarding school in the United States and then to Yale University. And then, during World War I, he and his friend Briton Hadden came up with the idea for a new magazine about big ideas, but written in ordinary language that anybody could understand. They decided to call the magazine Time, because they thought it would give ordinary Americans the time to learn about the important events and ideas around the world. They designed each issue so that it could be read in under an hour.

They raised $86,000 from investors, and the first issue of Time came out on March 3, 1923, with a first run of 12,000 copies. The staff consisted of Luce, Hadden, and three other full-time writers. Instead of hiring correspondents to cover major events around the country and the world, they just read what other people wrote about those events and wrote their own articles as if they'd been there. Nobody noticed.

It's the birthday of Washington Irving, (books by this author) born in New York City (1783). He made his name as a writer in 1809, when he published his first book, A History of New York, a satirical history of the city from the point of view of an eccentric old Dutch professor named Diedrich Knickerbocker. The book became so popular among New Yorkers that they began to call themselves Knickerbockers, and the term became the source of the name for the basketball team.

The stories we remember him for were included in his book called The Sketch Book (1819). The first of these was "Rip Van Winkle," about a man who falls asleep during British rule of the American Colonies, and wakes up years later to find that he lives in the independent United States. The other was "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about Ichabod Crane's fateful encounter with the Headless Horseman. At the time "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published, there were no internationally known American writers of fiction. One English critic wrote in 1818, "The Americans have no national literature and no learned men." And another said, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" Irving's Sketch Book was the first international best-seller by an American author, and it was greatly admired by British writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

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