Jan. 29, 2009


by Maxine Kumin

       How did we get to be old ladies—
        my grandmother's job-when we
       were the long-leggèd girls?
         —Hilma Wolitzer

Instead of marrying the day after graduation,
in spite of freezing on my father's arm as
here comes the bride struck up,
saying, I'm not sure I want to do this,

I should have taken that fellowship
to the University of Grenoble to examine
the original manuscript
of Stendahl's unfinished Lucien Leuwen,

I, who had never been west of the Mississippi,
should have crossed the ocean
in third class on the Cunard White Star,
the war just over, the Second World War

when Kilroy was here, that innocent graffito,
two eyes and a nose draped over
a fence line. How could I go?
Passion had locked us together.

Sixty years my lover,
he says he would have waited.
He says he would have sat
where the steamship docked

till the last of the pursers
decamped, and I rushed back
littering the runway with carbon paper...
Why didn't I go? It was fated.

Marriage dizzied us. Hand over hand,
flesh against flesh for the final haul,
we tugged our lifeline through limestone and sand,
lover and long-leggèd girl.

"Looking Back in My Eighty-first Year" by Maxine Kumin, from Still to Mow. © W.W. Norton, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Anton Chekhov, (books by this author) born in Taganrog, Russia (1860). His father came from a long line of serfs, but his grandfather had bought the family's freedom before he was born.

Chekhov went to Moscow to study medicine, and he started writing short, funny stories for comic magazines to earn extra money. In 1884, he got his medical degree and began his career as a doctor. He set up free clinics in provincial Russia, and he fought the cholera and famine epidemics of 1891 and 1892.

Chekhov continued to write stories for weekly magazines and newspapers, but he often used pseudonyms, embarrassed by his writing. He didn't think he was a very good writer, so didn't want to try anything too ambitious.

Today, Chekhov is considered one of the inventors of the modern short story. His stories were usually short, full of passive characters, and without much of a plot or big emotional climaxes. Chekhov wrote about prostitutes and criminals, but he didn't condemn their actions. He said, "A writer should be as objective as a chemist."

Chekhov's first play, The Seagull, opened in 1885. The audience hated it, and Chekhov walked out at intermission and vowed never to write another play. But two years later, it was produced again, this time to rave reviews. That inspired him to continue as a playwright, and he wrote The Three Sisters (1901), The Cherry Orchard (1904), and Uncle Vanya (1897).

Chekhov said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."

It was on this day in 1845 that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" was first published in the New York Evening Mirror. It begins:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door —
      Only this, and nothing more."

Poe became famous almost immediately. Within a few years, "The Raven" had been reprinted in newspapers and magazines across the country, and included in poetry anthologies. Poe became a popular lecturer and dinner party performer, where his recitations of the poem were legendary.

"The Raven" became the target of many parodies. Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer at the time, read a parody before he read the real thing. Lincoln eventually committed all of "The Raven" to memory.

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




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