Sunday

Jul. 8, 2007

Surprises

by Maxine Kumin

SUNDAY, 8 JULY, 2007
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Poem: "Surprises" by Maxine Kumin, from Bringing Together: Uncollected Early Poems 1958-1988. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Surprises

This morning's red sun licks dew from the hundred
California peppers that never set fruit in
my Zone-Three garden. After fifteen summers

of failure why this year do I suffer
the glut of inordinate success? They hang
in clustered pairs like newly hatched sex organs.

Doubtless this means I am approaching
the victory of poetry over death
where art wins, chaos retreats, and beauty

albeit trampled under barbarism
rises again, shiny with roses, no thorns.
No earwigs, cutworms, leaf miners either.

Mother's roses climbed the same old latticework
trellis until it shattered under their weight
and she mourned the dirtied blossoms more, I thought,

than if they'd been her children. She pulled on
goatskin gloves to deal with her arrangements
in chamberpots, pitchers, and a silver urn.

I watched, orphan at the bakeshop window.
It took all morning. Never mix species
or colors, she lectured. It cheapens them.

At the end of her long life she could reel off
the names of all the cart horses that had
trundled through her childhood, and now that I

look backward longer than forward, nothing
too small to remember, nothing too slight
to stand in awe of, her every washday

Monday baked stuffed peppers come back to me
full of the leftovers she called surprises.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer J. F. (James Farl) Powers (books by this author), born in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917): a writer who didn't have a lot of readers in his lifetime because he wrote primarily about the lives of Catholic priests in Minnesota. Non-Catholics weren't particularly interested in his work, and Catholics tended to think he was too critical. But after his death in 1999, many critics said he should be ranked among the greatest and funniest fiction writers of the late 20th century.

He was 25 when he published his first important short story, called "Lion, Harts, Leaping Does," about a priest named Father Didymus, who remains faithful even though he believes he's unworthy of God. The story was selected for the first edition of the Best American Short Stories anthology, and it was published in his first collection, The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947).

As he got older, his work just got funnier, and in 1962, he published his first novel, Morte D'Urban, about a priest named Father Urban Roche, who runs a parish in Great Plains in Minnesota, but who thinks of himself as a kind of businessman, using his position to get the best rooms in hotels and spending all his spare time playing golf. It begins, "Father Urban, fifty-four, tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye, smiled and put out his hand."

Powers took 25 years to write his next novel, Wheat That Springeth Green (1988). His publisher only ordered 8,500 copies to be printed. Powers begged them to print more, but they refused. When the book came out, it got amazing reviews, and the first printing sold out in a few weeks. It took so long to print more copies that by the time the book was back in bookstores, the enthusiasm had already died down. Powers said, "It was as if I were on first base but somebody had come and collected second and third base and carried them away. There was a sharp line drive to left, and I had nowhere to go."

He only published two novels and three collections of stories in his lifetime. Saul Bellow once called him one of the five great writers in America, but by the time he died, most of his books had gone out of print. But his two novels have since been republished, and his stories have been collected in The Stories of J. F. Powers, which came out in 2000.

J.F. Powers was once asked by nun in an interview for the American Benedictine Review if he had any ideas about the role of the Catholic writer. He replied, "No, I'm afraid I don't, Sister, except that obviously he should not write junk."


It was on this day in 1918 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) was wounded while serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I. It was only one month after he'd arrived. Hemingway was passing out chocolates to Italian soldiers on the front line when he heard the sound of a trench mortar flying through the air. He later said that the explosion felt like a furnace door bursting open.

He later had 228 pieces of shrapnel removed from his leg and spent the next several weeks in the hospital. The wound he received would go on to become the central event of his novel A Farewell to Arms (1929), which he considered his best book, and his experiences in Italy appeared in many short stories as well. He later said, "In Italy, when I was at the war there... my own small experiences gave me a touchstone by which I could tell whether stories were true or false and being wounded was a password."


It's the birthday of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (books by this author), born in Zurich, Switzerland (1926). She was the first medical professional to argue that dying is a natural process, and that patients who are terminally ill should not be forced to fight the dying process every step of the way. She wrote, "One might think that the scientific man of the twentieth century would have learned to deal with [death] as successfully as he has been able to add years to his life-span, or to replace human organs, or to produce children through artificial insemination. Yet... advancement of science has not contributed to but rather detracted from man's ability to accept death with dignity."

Her book On Death and Dying (1969) helped start the hospice movement, which has since spread around the world. She also introduced the now-famous concept of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.


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