Jun. 18, 2007
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Poem: "Beauty" by Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.
After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,
but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.
I'm probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,
spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,
while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.
Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.
Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,
walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it
It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.
My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,
something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is the anniversary of the day in 1815 that Napoleon Bonaparte lost his final major battle near Waterloo Village in Belgium. After a series of defeats, he had abdicated the throne and went to live on the island of Elba. He took long salt baths and read The Arabian Nights. But after a year in exile, he got bored and went back to France. He gathered an army and marched north toward Belgium where he hoped to attack and destroy the English and Prussian armies, which were gathering near Brussels.
His plan was to split his own army and attack the English and Prussian armies separately, in order to drive them apart. Then he could defeat them one at a time. But the men in his army were mostly peasants and farmers he had gathered on his way north. They loved him, but they had no real experience on the battlefield. Due to a series of blunders, his two flanks accidentally drove the English and Prussian armies closer together rather than further apart.
Napoleon got the bad news at 11:00 p.m. on June 17th, and he spent all night worrying about it. There had been a thunderstorm that evening so he'd been forced to delay his attack on the British troops near the village of Waterloo. But despite everything going against him, he still thought he could win. He had 74,000 men compared to the opposing army's 68,000, and he had superior artillery. He told his chief of staff, "This affair is nothing more than eating breakfast."
Unfortunately for Napoleon, the rain had delayed the battle so long that the Prussian army had time to arrive with reinforcements and help the British win the battle. Napoleon lost 25,000 men. He signed a second abdication in Paris and went to live on the remote island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa.
The word "Waterloo" has come to mean an impossible struggle or a decisive and final contest. An abolitionist and orator named Wendell Phillips was one of the first people to use the word that way when he said, "Every man meets his Waterloo at last."
It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, (books by this author) born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1949). He's the author of the children's books Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985).
It's the birthday of novelist Gail Godwin, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, Alabama (1937). She's the author of many books, including The Odd Woman (1974), The Finishing School (1985), and The Good Husband (1994).
It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Powers, (books by this author) born in Evanston, Illinois (1957). His most recent novel, The Echo Maker (2006), is about a man who gets into a car accident and begins suffering from a neurological disorder called Capgras syndrome, which causes him to think that his family and friends are all imposters. It won the National Book Award.
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