Jun. 30, 2007
Cutting the Cake
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Poem: "Cutting the Cake" by Virginia Hamilton Adair, from Ants of the Melon: A Collection of Poems. © Random House, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Cutting the Cake
Gowned and veiled for tribal ritual
in a maze of tulle and satin
with her eyes rimmed round in cat fur
and the stylish men about her
kissing kin and carefree suitors
long she looked unseeing past him
to her picture in the papers
print and photoflash embalming
the demise of the familiar
and he trembled as her fingers
took the dagger laid before them
for the ceremonial cutting
of the mounting tiers of sweetness
crowned with manikin and maiden
and her chop was so triumphant
that the groomlike little figure
from his lover at the apex
toppled over in the frosting
where a flower girl retrieved him
sucked him dry and bit his head off.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1857 that Charles Dickens gave his first public reading. He did this for several reasons: to get away from marital discord at home, because he loved to perform in front of an audience, and because he could make more money reading than he could by writing. His first reading, of A Christmas Carol, was held at Saint Martin's Hall in London, and it was so successful that Charles Dickens became one of the first authors to go on huge, international book tours, performing his own work.
One of the people who went to see Dickens perform when he came to America was Mark Twain. Twain wrote, "That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face... But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty... as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it ...that could create men and women ... murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work."
It was on this day in 1936 that the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was first published. When she handed the manuscript over to editors, it was in terrible shape, with more than 1,000 pages of faded and dog-eared paper, poorly typed and with penciled changes. But they loved the story. They asked Mitchell to change the original title "Tomorrow Is Another Day" because at the time there were already thirteen books in print with the word "Tomorrow" in the title. They also asked her to change the main character's name from Pansy to Scarlett.
Gone with the Wind sold 50,000 copies sold in one day, a million copies six months, and two million by the end of the year. The sales of the book were even more impressive because it was in the middle of the Great Depression. The year it came out, employees at the Macmillan publishing company received Christmas bonuses for the first time in nearly a decade.
It's the birthday of poet Czeslaw Milosz, (books by this author) born in Szetejnie, Lithuania (1911). He grew up in a Polish-speaking family. The family eventually settled in Poland. Milosz studied law rather than literature in college because, he said, "There were so many girls studying literature it was called the marriage department." In 1931 he co-founded a literary group that was so pessimistic about the future it was nicknamed the "Catastrophists." The group predicted a coming world war, but nobody believed them. He worked for Polish Radio for a while, but he got fired when he let Jews broadcast their opinions on the air. Another radio station sent him to cover the invasion of Poland by Nazi forces in 1939. After the invasion, he found a job as a janitor at a university, secretly writing anti-Nazi poetry for underground publications. He witnessed the genocide of the Jews in Warsaw, and was one of the first poets to write about it in his book of poems Rescue (1945).
After the war, Milosz got a job working as a diplomat for communist Poland, though he wasn't a party member. One night in the winter of 1949, on his way home from a government meeting, he saw several jeeps filled with political prisoners, surrounded by soldiers. He said, "It was then that I realized what I was part of." He defected in 1951, and made it to Paris even though his passport had been confiscated.
Most intellectuals in Paris were pro-communist at the time, and they thought of Milosz as either a traitor or a madman for leaving Poland. So he moved to the United States and began teaching at the University of California at Berkley in 1960. He kept writing poetry in Polish, even though almost no one was reading it. His books had been banned in Poland, and his poems weren't translated into English until 1973. Then, in 1980, he got a phone call at 3:00 in the morning telling him that he'd won the Nobel Prize for literature.
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