May 5, 2007

Instrument of Choice

by Robert Phillips

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

Instrument of Choice

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba. Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover's embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Kaye Gibbons, (books by this author) born in the small rural community of Bend of the River in Nash County, North Carolina (1960). She grew up in a four-room farmhouse, her father barely supporting the family as a tobacco farmer. Her mother suffered from depression and committed suicide when Gibbons was 10 years old. Her father drank himself to death a year later. Gibbons went to live with a series of aunts until her older brother took her in. She later said, "[It was] the sort of childhood that encourages someone to either become a writer or to rob convenience stores."

She went on to write a novel based loosely on her own childhood, told in the voice of a young Southern girl, and that was Ellen Foster, which came out in 1987 and got great reviews. It begins, "When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy. ... But I did not kill my daddy. He drank his own self to death the year after the County moved me out."

Gibbons has gone on to write many more novels, and her most recent is a sequel to that first book about Ellen Foster. It's called The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster (2005).

Kaye Gibbons said, "One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that it can be done at home."

It's the birthday of political journalist Richard Rovere, born in Jersey City, New Jersey (1915). In 1944, he was hired by The New Yorker, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Each month, he wrote the column called "Letter from Washington" from his home in Rhinebeck, New York.

It's the birthday of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, (books by this author) born in Copenhagen, Denmark (1813). His father was a prosperous merchant and when he died, Kierkegaard inherited enough money to be financially independent for the rest of his life. Around the same time that his father died, Kierkegaard fell in love with a girl named Regine and became engaged. But for some mysterious reason, Kierkegaard called off the wedding. In a letter to Regine, he wrote, "Above all, forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, though he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy." He later wrote in his diary, "I was a thousand years too old for her." The girl eventually married another man, but Kierkegaard never forgot her. He dedicated many of his books to her father, and he made her the sole beneficiary of his estate. He later said that it was loss of Regine that turned him into a writer.

It's the birthday of Karl Marx, (books by this author) born in Trier, Prussia (1818). His main theory was that the economic system was a perpetual conflict between those who controlled the capital and those who provided the labor. He believed that the conflict would never be resolved peacefully, because capitalism was too volatile.

Marx wrote about his ideas in the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, but after revolution broke out in France, Italy, and Austria, Marx was forced to flee Belgium where he was living. He moved to London, where he worked on his last book, Das Kapital (1867). He slowly sank into poverty, having to avoid creditors, pawn his furniture, and fight off eviction. When one of his children died, Marx was so poor that his wife had to borrow money from a neighbor to buy a coffin. When he died in 1883, only 11 people came to his funeral.

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