Oct. 15, 2007

Monkey Mind

by Stephen Orlen

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Poem: "Monkey Mind" by Steve Orlen, from The Elephant's Child: New and Selected Poems 1978–2005. © Ausable Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Monkey Mind

When I was a child I had what is called an inner life.
For example, I looked at that girl over there
In the second aisle of seats and wondered what it was like
To have buck teeth pushing out your upper lip
And how it felt to have those little florets the breasts
Swelling her pajama top before she went to sleep.
Walking home, I asked her both questions
And instead of answering she told her mother
Who told the teacher who told my father.
After all these years, I can almost feel his hand
Rising in the room, the moment in the air of his decision,
Then coming down so hard it took my breath away,
And up again in that small arc
To smack his open palm against my butt.
I'm a slow learner
And still sometimes I'm sitting here wondering what my father
Is thinking, blind and frail and eighty-five,
Plunged down into his easy chair half the night
Listening to Bach cantatas. I know he knows
At every minute of every hour that he's going to die
Because he told my mother and my mother told me.
I didn't cry or cry out or say I'm sorry.
I lay across his lap and wondered what
He could be thinking to hit a kid like that.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, (books by this author) born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844), who was a young professor of Greek literature when he got sick and had to take a medical leave from his professorship. He spent the next 15 years suffering from terrible headaches and stomach problems and deteriorating eyesight, living in a series of increasingly shabby rented rooms. But he wrote to distract himself, and it was in those 15 years that he wrote all his most famous books, including Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), about a prophet who comes down from the mountains to tell everyone that God is dead and we have killed him. Nietzsche thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to learn to live in a world without God and without absolute morality.

Today is the birthday of the poet Virgil, (books by this author) born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.), who became famous for writing poems about the beauty and simplicity of farm life at a time when Rome was being torn apart by civil wars. When those wars were finally over, the government asked Virgil to write a poem that would persuade Romans who had left the countryside to return home and become farmers again. So Virgil wrote The Georgics, a kind of poetic farming manual about grain production, trees, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The poems provided instruction, but they were also entertaining and full of beautiful descriptions of nature.

Virgil's work impressed the emperor Augustus, so Virgil was given a generous stipend to live on for the rest of his life, and he spent the rest of his life writing his epic poem The Aeneid, about the soldier Aeneas, traveling home from the Trojan war to found a new city that would become Rome. Virgil had been working on it for 11 years when he took a trip to Greece for some final research, caught a fever and died before he could finish. His final request before his death was that his incomplete poem be burned, but Augustus ordered it preserved, and it became the basis of standard curriculum in Roman schools. It's now been in print for more than 2,000 years.

It's the birthday of English novelist P. G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse, (books by this author) born in Guildford, England (1881), who moved to the United States in 1909 and began to publish the stories that made him famous in the Saturday Evening Post about a cartoonish England, full of extremely polite but brain-dead aristocrats.

Wodehouse is best known for a series of books about a servant named Jeeves who is constantly saving his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all kinds of absurd situations: My Man Jeeves (1919); Carry On, Jeeves (1927); Thank You, Jeeves (1934), and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934). Over the course of his life Wodehouse wrote almost a hundred books of fiction, as well as 16 plays and lyrics for 28 musicals. He was once asked if he was ever surprised by any of the books he had written, and he said, "Oh, yes. I'm rather surprised that they're so good."

It's the birthday of novelist Italo Calvino, (books by this author) born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba (1923), but grew up in Italy. He started out writing realistic novels about ordinary Italians living in poverty after World War II, but in the 1950s he began collecting old Italian folktales, hoping to do for Italy what the brothers Grimm had done for Germany. And the magic of those stories began to seep into his own novels, including Baron in the Trees (1957), about a young man who decides to live in the trees to avoid everything he dislikes about the world. Calvino went on to write numerous strange and allegorical novels, including Cosmicomics (1962), narrated by an energy particle, and Invisible Cities (1972), which consists entirely of descriptions of imaginary cities.

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