May 7, 2007

Birthday Girl: 1950

by Linda McCarriston

MONDAY, 7 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Birthday Girl: 1950" by Linda McCarriston, from Talking Soft Dutch. © Texas Tech Press, 1984. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Birthday Girl: 1950

              for my mother

The day the package came
from Sears, you were ironing
and smoking, in the one
slab of light that elbowed in
between our three-decker
and the next one.
World Series Time, and the radio
bobbing on the square end
of the board told over
what you already knew:

The Sox are the same old
bunch of bums!
you said, slamming
the iron into some navy gabardine;
the smells of workclothes—Tide
and oil—rose up together
in steam around you, like the roar
of the crowd at Fenway
and the shouts, downstairs,
of Imalda, getting belted around
her kitchen at noon.

Some people can make anything
out of anything else. If you
still can, remember that day
like this: you douse your cigarette
and squat down close; I open
the box addressed only to me
and find inside the pair of sandals
you call harlequin, with straps
as many colored as a life.

I am happy. You buckle them on me.
Every room is dark but where we are.
Every other room is empty.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Peter Carey, (books by this author) born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia (1943). He first made his name with a collection of very strange short stories called The Fat Man in History (1974), which got great reviews. He went on to publish a series of dark surrealist novels and then moved to New York City, where one day he saw a series of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting Ned Kelly, a horse thief and murderer who has become a kind of folk hero in Australia. Carey tried to explain to his American friends who Ned Kelly was, and that gave him the idea to write a novel about Ned Kelly's life, narrated by Kelly himself. And that book, True History of the Kelly Gang, won the Booker Prize when it came out in 2000.

His most recent novel, Theft: A Love Story, came out in 2006.

Peter Carey said, "Self-knowledge does not necessarily help a novelist. It helps a human being a great deal but novelists, as we know, are often appalling human beings."

Today is the birthday two famous composers: Johannes Brahms, born in Hamburg, Germany (1833), and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born seven years later in Votkinsk, Russia (1840).

It's the birthday of the poet Jenny Joseph, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, England (1932). She was an aspiring poet throughout her 20s, supporting herself with odd jobs. Then in 1960, when she was 28 years old, she published a poem called "Warning," which began with the line, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple."

The poem was moderately successful at first, published in several anthologies, but then it began to spread across the world among people who don't usually read poetry. It was photocopied and passed around and stuck up on people's refrigerators. People read it at church gatherings and funerals and senior citizen homes. In 1996, in a poll conducted by the BBC, it was voted as Britain's favorite post-war poem, beating out Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night."

Somehow, as the poem became more and more popular, Jenny Joseph's name as the author was lost. Other people claimed to have written the poem, or it was attributed to "Anonymous." Jenny Joseph eventually published an authorized, illustrated version of the poem in 1997, which sold thousands of copies. Her name is still not as well known as that one poem, but today she is considered one of the foremost contemporary British poets.

When she was asked if she would start wearing purple anytime soon, Jenny Joseph replied, "I can't stand purple. It doesn't suit me."

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




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