Nov. 5, 2007

Gate C22

by Ellen Bass

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Poem: "Gate C22" by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Gate C22

At gate C22 in the Portland airport
a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed
a woman arriving from Orange County.
They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after
the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons
and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,
the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other
like he'd just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,
like she'd been released at last from ICU, snapped
out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down
from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.

Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.
She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine
her saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish
kisses like the ocean in the early morning,
the way it gathers and swells, sucking
each rock under, swallowing it
again and again. We were all watching —
passengers waiting for the delayed flight
to San Jose, the stewardesses, the pilots,
the aproned woman icing Cinnabons, the man selling
sunglasses. We couldn't look away. We could
taste the kisses crushed in our mouths.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back
and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost
as though he were a mother still open from giving birth,
as your mother must have looked at you, no matter
what happened after — if she beat you or left you or
you're lonely now — you once lay there, the vernix
not yet wiped off, and someone gazed at you
as if you were the first sunrise seen from the Earth.
The whole wing of the airport hushed,
all of us trying to slip into that woman's middle-aged body,
her plaid Bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse, glasses,
little gold hoop earrings, tilting our heads up.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the original muckrakers, Ida Tarbell, (books by this author) born in Hatch Hallow, Pennsylvania (1857), who was working for McClure's Magazine when she was assigned to write an exposé about John D. Rockefeller's company Standard Oil. It just so happened that Ida Tarbell's father had owned an oil refinery, and he'd nearly been driven out of business by Standard Oil. Ida Tarbell had grown up listening to her father complain about Standard Oil. So she spent the next two years investigating, and her friend Mark Twain put her in touch with a company insider named Henry Rogers, who gave her evidence that Standard Oil was colluding with railroad companies to drive smaller refineries out of business. After her articles were collected into the book The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), the federal government began an anti-trust prosecution, and the breakup of the company was finally decided by the Supreme Court on May 15, 1911. It was the first time that a journalist had ever brought down a major American corporation.

It's the birthday of actor and playwright Sam Shepard, (books by this author) born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943). His first big success was his play Buried Child, about an old man named Dodge who has spent years doing nothing but drinking whisky and watching TV, until the day his grandson, Vince, comes home and demands to be recognized as the heir to the family farm. It won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1978. Shepard has gone on to produce more plays than any other American playwright, almost none of which premiered on Broadway. His play Kicking a Dead Horse had its debut in Dublin last March (2007).

On this day in 1930, a Swedish newspaper reporter telephoned Sinclair Lewis to tell him that he had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Lewis thought the caller was making a practical joke and began to imitate the man's accent. But it was not a joke: Lewis was, in fact, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. He wasn't sure he deserved it and told a friend at the time, "This is the end of me. ... I cannot live up to it." He used his Nobel lecture to talk about all the other writers that might have been chosen: Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, and Willa Cather, and he ended the lecture by mentioning the younger writers he considered the future of American literature, including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, each of whom had just published his first few books. Lewis said, "[These] young Americans ... are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them."

It's the birthday of writer and historian Will Durant, (books by this author) born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1885), who, with his wife as researcher, wrote an 11-volume history of the human race, aimed at the general reader, called The Story of Civilization (1939-1975). The books got terrible reviews from academic historians, but they were best-sellers, and the 10th volume won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. The complete set was offered for sale by the Book of the Month Club for $29.95, or about one penny for every 1,500 words, and it sold more than 500,000 copies.

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