Apr. 11, 2007

Breakfast Song

by Elizabeth Bishop

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Poem: "Breakfast Song" by Elizabeth Bishop, from Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Breakfast Song

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Leo Rosten, (books by this author) born in Lodz, Poland (1908). As a young man, he taught English classes to immigrants, and one of his favorite students was a man named Hyman Kaplan, who used English more creatively than anyone he had ever met. Years later, he wrote a collection of humorous stories about that man called The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), which became a best-seller.

But his masterpiece was The Joys of Yiddish (1968), an unofficial lexicon of Yiddish words, phrases, and rhetorical devices, illustrated with proverbs, quotes, and jokes. He wrote about Yiddish words like schlep, klutz, schlemiel, glitch, yenta, schmooze, schlump, schnook, and schlock. It was Rosten who first set down in print the famous definition of chutzpa as, "That quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan."

It's the birthday of Glenway Wescott, (books by this author) born in Kewaskum, Wisconsin (1901). He ran away from home when he was 13 and moved in with relatives. For the next 20 years of his life, he moved farther and farther away from home—to Chicago, New Mexico, and New York. But all the while he was moving away, he kept writing about his hometown in novels such as Apple of the Eye (1924), The Grandmothers (1927), and the collection of short stories Good-Bye Wisconsin (1928).

He moved to Europe just before the stock market crash of 1929, and he joined the community of expatriate writers in Paris. It took him 10 years to write The Pilgrim Hawk (1940), a short novel about expatriates that takes place on a single afternoon. It was hailed as a masterpiece. But though he lived for almost 50 more years, he never published another serious work of fiction. The Pilgrim Hawk fell out of print for years, but it was recently rediscovered and republished in 2001.

It was on this day in 1945 that the U.S. army entered the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. At the time, there had been reports of concentration camps from the field, but no Americans had seen the camps for themselves. The American soldiers who arrived at Buchenwald on this day in 1945 would become the first Western observers of one of the worst atrocities in human history.

Several of the soldiers carried Kodak cameras, and so they took photographs of the surviving prisoners and the dead, so that people would believe what they had seen. Their photographs showed human beings so emaciated that they could barely walk, and victims' bodies stacked around the camp like piles of wood.

One of the children liberated at the camp that day was a teenager named Elie Wiesel, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been forced to march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald a few weeks earlier, and his father had recently died in the camp. In the weeks before the liberation, Wiesel had stopped going to get his food rations, had given up on living. And then, on this day in 1945, Wiesel saw American jeeps rolling into the camps. In his memoir All the Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel wrote, "I will never forget the American soldiers and the horror that could be read in their faces. I will especially remember one black sergeant, a muscled giant, who wept tears of impotent rage and shame... . We tried to lift him onto our shoulders to show our gratitude, but we didn't have the strength. We were too weak to even applaud him."

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