Dec. 2, 2007

Eating A Mango Over The Kitchen Sink

by Phebe Hanson

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Eating A Mango Over The Kitchen Sink" by Phebe Hanson, from Why Still Dance. © Nodin Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the only way to do it, even though Melody, my Weight Watchers
lecturer, has admonished us against the over-the-sink method of eating:
"Use your best china and silver, sit down, light candles, eat slowly."

But a mango is a different story, impossible to eat except leaning
over the sink, tropical juice dripping down my pale Minnesota
              winter wrists as I gaze
out at snow raging against my windows, like the storms of my childhood.

How I used to love them, when everything shut down — schools, stores,
post office, bank, and churches. "I suppose the pool hall's open," my father said,
knowing some in his congregation preferred that haven to church.

Our whole family clustered together, joyful over a free day,
              and even my stepmother
seemed happy, made cinnamon toast and cocoa with marshmallows
instead of the slimy oatmeal we all hated but had to eat,

and my father postponed his sermon-writing to join us after supper
in the living room while we listened to Lux Radio Theater,
              forgetting homework,
sermons, the dirty clothes in the basement, waiting on the cement floor.

For once we were all contented, sitting together on our old
davenport, even though not one of us had ever tasted a mango.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1942 that scientists working on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago conducted the first-ever man-made nuclear reaction. The leader of the experiment was the Italian immigrant Enrico Fermi, who had won a Nobel Prize for discovering fission. He had realized that if you split an atom with a neutron, the split atom would produce more neutrons, which could then split other atoms, and so on, creating a chain reaction. To test the idea, he and his assistants built a makeshift nuclear reactor on an unused squash court near the university's football field, constructing a pile of uranium bricks interspersed with graphite blocks to slow down the neutrons. They used neutron-absorbing cadmium rods to delay the reaction until they were ready. A couple of young physicists stood on a scaffold over the pile with buckets of liquid cadmium as an emergency measure in case there was a meltdown.

They started the reaction at 9:45 a.m., withdrawing all the cadmium rods so that the uranium neutrons would begin splitting atoms. The only way they could observe what was happening was with their Geiger counters, which measured the number of neutrons in the room. As the rods were removed, the Geiger counters made a clicking sound that grew faster and faster, until they began to make a sound that one of the eyewitnesses described as a roar. Finally, Fermi announced that the reaction had reached critical mass, and they reinserted the rods to shut it down. People applauded, but nobody cheered. They celebrated with paper cups of Chianti, but nobody made a toast. One of the young physicists there that day said, "We had known that we were about to unlock a giant; still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it."

It's the birthday of short-story writer George Saunders, (books by this author) born in Amarillo, Texas (1958), who has published a series of surreal, comic stories in his collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000). His most recent book is The Braindead Megaphone (2007).

It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1963), whose first big success was the novel Bel Canto (2001) about a hostage crisis in which terrorists take control over an extravagant party and hold the guests hostage for months, and over time, some of the hostages and terrorists become friends and even lovers. Her most recent novel is Run, which came out this year (2007). Ann Patchett said, "I believe that my gift in this world is not that I'm smarter or more talented than anyone else: it's that I had a singular goal. I don't want other stuff: friends, kids, travel. What makes me happy is writing."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »