Nov. 15, 2007

Letter of Recommendation

by Robert B. Shaw

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Poem: "Letter of Recommendation" by Robert B. Shaw, from Solving for X. © POhio University Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Letter of Recommendation

Miss A, who graduated six years back,
has air-expressed me an imposing stack
of forms in furtherance of her heart's desire:
a Ph.D. Not wishing to deny her,
I dredge around for something laudatory
to say that won't be simply a tall story;
in fact, I search for memories of her,
and draw a blank—or say, at best a blur.
Was hers the class in that ungodly room
whose creaking door slammed with a sonic boom,
whose radiators twangeled for the first
ten minutes, and then hissed, and (this was worst)
subsided with a long, regretful sigh?
Yes, there, as every Wednesday we would try
to overlook cacophony and bring
our wits to bear on some distinguished thing
some poet sometime wrote, Miss A would sit
calm in a middle row and ponder it.
Blonde, I believe, and quiet (so many are).
A dutiful note-taker. Not a star.
Roundheads and Cavaliers received their due
notice from her before the term was through.
She wrote a paper on... could it have been
"Milton's Idea of Original Sin"?
Or was it "Deathbed Imagery in Donne"?
Whichever, it was likely not much fun
for her. It wasn't bad, though I've seen better.
But I can hardly say that in a letter
like this one, now refusing to take shape
even as wispy memories escape
the reach of certitude. Try as I may,
I cannot render palpable Miss A,
who, with five hundred classmates, left few traces
when she decamped. Those mortarboard-crowned faces,
multitudes, beaming, ardent to improve
a world advancing dumbly in its groove,
crossing the stage that day-to be consigned
to a cold-storage portion of the mind...
What could be sadder? (She remembered me.)
The transcript says I gave Miss A a B.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist J.G. (James Graham) Ballard, (books by this author) born to British parents in Shanghai, China (1930). He grew up in a British expatriate community in China, but during World War II, he and his family were forced by the Japanese into an internment camp where he saw people being beaten and shot, and he watched bombs fall on nearby airfields. After the war, he moved with his family to England, a country he'd only heard about, and he was shocked by the dreariness of London, which was still a bombed-out mess. He later said, "People talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as though they had lost it."

He went on to write a series of surreal science fiction novels, including The Drowned World (1962), about a future in which the polar ice caps have melted and Europe and America have become tropical lagoons, and Crash (1973), about a cult of people who are so obsessed with car accidents that they reenact the fatal car crashes of celebrities.

Then, after almost 30 years of writing science fiction, Ballard decided to write about his experiences in China during World War II. He said, "[I wanted to] convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage." The result was his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), which became a huge best-seller and has since been called the best British novel about World War II. His most recent book is Kingdom Come (2006).

It's the birthday of Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887), who became famous for her paintings of flowers. But when asked why she chose flowers as her subject, she said "Because they're cheaper than models and they don't move."

It's the birthday of Marianne Moore, (books by this author) born in Kirkwood, Missouri (1887), who said "Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads."

It was on this day in 1940 that 75,000 men were called to Armed Forces duty under the first peacetime conscription in American history. The draft had never been popular in America. During the Civil War it had sparked riots, and during World War I more than 3 million men refused to register at all. But people had heard about Hitler's army invading and occupying Poland and France over the course of several months. In October of 1940, 16 million young men appeared at precinct election boards across the country to register with the Selective Service, and the first 75,000 draftees were called up to service on this day in 1940. In 1939, a poll had shown that only 35 percent of Americans approved of a draft, but by 1940 that support had gone up to 92 percent.

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