Jul. 30, 2007

A California Girlhood

by Alice Notley


by Alice Notley

The Goddess Who Created this Passing World

by Alice Notley


by Alice Notley

MONDAY, 30 JULY, 2007
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Poems: "Sonnet" and "You" by Alice Notley, from Grave of Light: Selected Poems 1970-2005. © Wesleyan University Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The late Gracie Allen was a very lucid comedienne,
Especially in the way that lucid means shining and bright.
What her husband George Burns called her illogical logic
Made a halo around our syntax and ourselves as we laughed.

George Burns most often was her artful inconspicuous straight man.
He could move people about stage, construct skits and scenes, write
And gather jokes. They were married as long as ordinary magic
Would allow, thirty-eight years, until Gracie Allen's death.

In her fifties Gracie Allen developed a heart condition.
She would call George Burns when her heart felt funny and fluttered
He'd give her a pill and they'd hold each other till the palpitation
Stopped - just a few minutes, many times and pills. As magic fills
Then fulfilled must leave a space, one day Gracie Allen's
     heart fluttered
And hurt and stopped. George Burns said unbelievingly to the doctor,
    "But I still have some of the pills."


By dust made beautiful,
Spun light of the window:
By bricks Lee sees are pink
That deluxe sensation of them:
By all October rains
That contract to silvered puddles:
By fine grain of atmosphere
In which walkers' lone thoughts mingle:
By plies of wine-dark night
And the outlandish moon:
By these shores of light-washed blocks
Where one transforms in love
The squalid to the innocent,
Matter to its sparklet bits:
By this cubicle where I
Re-stir the dirt & make a song:
And by, brighter than believing,
The star I shine as here:
I conjure you to know me
As best of children best of women.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Emily Brontë (books by this author), born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England (1818). She's known for the only novel she ever wrote, Wuthering Heights (1848), about a boy from the streets of Liverpool named Heathcliff who is adopted into a wealthy landowning family and falls in love with his adopted sister, Catherine Earnshaw. When he realizes he can't have her, he tries to take revenge upon his entire adopted family. It's a passionate, tragic love story written by a woman who apparently never had a romantic relationship with anyone herself. In fact, as far as we know, she rarely even spoke to anyone other than her immediate family members.

Some scholars think she may have gotten the idea for the novel from her brother's life. He was fired from a job as a tutor after it was rumored that he had an affair with the mother of the children he was supposed to be teaching. He was also suffering from alcoholism and addiction to laudanum after trying — and failing — to become a painter in London. It's possible that Branwell began to tell his sister about all his life experiences — his addictions, his love affairs, and his failed attempt to become a painter.

Just after the novel came out, Emily's brother began to fall ill. She took care of him for the next several months, until he died in September 1848. She came down with the same illness a month later, and she had died before the end of the year. She was only 30 years old.

It's the birthday of economist Thorstein Veblen (books by this author), (1857). He's best known for his book The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). In it he introduced the concept of "conspicuous consumption." That's the idea that people sometimes buy things, like Model T Fords, just to make a statement to those around them about what social class they are in or what type of person they are.

It's the birthday of the essayist and novelist William H. Gass (books by this author), born in Fargo, North Dakota (1924). He wrote the novel Omensetter's Luck (1966), and literary critics said it was the most revolutionary American novel in decades. It's about the confrontation in a small 19th century Ohio town between a genuinely good man named Brackett Omensetter and a crazy preacher named Reverend Jethro Furber, and it's told in the many voices of the townsfolk. It begins, "Now folks today we're going to auction off Missus Pimber's things. I think you all knew Missus Pimber and you know she had some pretty nice things. This is going to be a real fine sale and we have a real fine day for it. It may get hot, though, later on, so we want to keep things moving right along."

Gass took 30 years to write his second novel, The Tunnel (1995). Some critics said it was nearly unreadable; others called it a masterpiece. It is about a professor of history who has written a book about Germany and only needs to finish the introduction, but he can't bring himself to do it. He slowly becomes so disgusted with his life and the world that he begins digging a tunnel in his basement.

In addition to his novels, Gass has also published several collections of essays, including The World Within the Word (1978), Habitations of the Word (1985), and Finding a Form (1996). He often writes about language and his sense that the greatest purpose of language is simply to create beauty. He wrote, "[Language] is not the lowborn, gawky servant of thought and feeling; it is need, thought, feeling, and perception itself. The shape of sentences, the song in its syllables, the rhythm of its movement, is the movement of the imagination."

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