Dec. 20, 2007


by Carolyn Kizer

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Poem: "Medicine" by Carolyn Kizer, from Cool, Calm & Collected © Copper Canyon Press Press, 2000. Originally appeared in Yin. © BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


                  For W.S., MD

The practice of medicine
Is not what it was
In my grandfather's time.

I remember him telling me
Of weeks that went by
When he would be paid
Only in chickens
Or only in potatoes;

Of treating the families
Of striking miners
In Montrose or Telluride
Who could not pay at all;
Of delivering babies
(A total of twenty)
For a tribe of dirt farmers
Who paid one new-laid egg
Or a cup of springwater:

After sweating a breech birth
And twins at that,
At five in the morning
It was mighty good water.

When, fifty years later,
He came back to the mountains
Middle-aged babies
Ran up in the street
Crying, Doc! Doc! eyes streaming,
Tried to kiss his old hands.

No, the practice of medicine
Is not what it was,
But it has its moments:

That morning in surgery
I regained consciousness
A little too early
And found the doctor
Kissing my hand,
Whispering, whispering
It's all right darling,
You're going to live.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was completed for $15 million, which was roughly three cents an acre. The land, which spanned from Montana to the port of New Orleans, doubled the size of the United States.

It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Benedict, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1954). She's the author of The Beginner's Book of Dreams (1988) and Almost (2001).

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and essayist Andrei Codrescu, (books by this author) born in an old medieval fortress city in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania (1946). Codrescu witnessed the Communist takeover of Romania, and he always remembered how the smell of apple strudel in his hometown was overpowered by the smell of boots. He didn't know any English when he landed in the United States. He said, "It's still a mystery to me exactly how I learned the language. [But] I was 19 years old and I had very urgent things to tell girls." When he traveled back to Romania in 1989 to witness the democratic revolution, Codrescu watched 45 years of Communist rule undone in eight days. He is the author of Wakefield (2004) and A Bar in Brooklyn (1999).

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, (books by this author) born in Chicago in 1954. When she was growing up, her Mexican-born father would often have bouts of nostalgia for the home country, and he would force the whole family to go back there for a few months.

She went on to college, and she later said she was lucky to be a girl, because her father didn't care what she studied. He just expected her to meet her husband. So she was free to study an impractical subject like English. She kept writing, and one of her professors encouraged her to apply to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

But once Cisneros got there, she felt totally out of place. She said, "My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks." One day, her class was given an exercise to think about the houses they'd grown up in. Cisneros's family had only owned one house, an ugly red bungalow. Listening to her classmates describe their childhood homes, she realized that she had grown up in a completely different world. She said, " It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice. ... That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."

Cisneros immediately began writing short pieces in the voice of a girl named Esperanza Cordero growing up in the barrio, who wants more than anything to live in a real house. And that became Cisneros's first novel, The House on Mango Street, which didn't receive much attention when it came out in 1983. But when it was republished in 1991, it made Sandra Cisneros one of the most popular Latina authors in America. Her most recent novel, Carmelo, came out in 2003.

It was on this day in 1985 that President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing an official Poet Laureate of the United States. The first laureate was Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King's Men.

It is the birthday of fiction writer Hortense Calisher, (books by this author) born in New York City (1911). She is the author of In the Absence of Angels (1951) and False Entry (1961). Calisher likes to add shocking twists to her seemingly mundane story lines — in one, all the women at a posh dinner table remove their blouses; in another, a bald woman discards her wig while embracing her lover only to be shunned for her honesty. She once said that the action of a short story is "an apocalypse served in a very small cup."

It is the birthday of Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, the woman who broke the heart of William Butler Yeats. Gonne was legendarily beautiful — six feet tall with cascading red hair, and the poet Yeats proposed shortly after meeting her and he stayed a virgin until he was 31 in the hope that she would marry him. Gonne refused his repeated proposals and focused all of her passion on the cause of Irish independence. She campaigned for land reform, advocated for political prisoners, and founded the Daughters of Erin to oppose British cultural influence in Ireland. She was also the model for many of Yeats' heroines. In his 1902 parable of Ireland's troubles, Cathleen ni Houlihan, Gonne played the title role, an old woman, Mother Ireland, who sheds her cloak to reveal a young, vibrant, free nation.

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




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