Saturday

Mar. 14, 2009

Ode to the Potato

by Barbara Hamby

"They eat a lot of French fries here," my mother
   announces after a week in Paris, and she's right,
not only about les pommes frites but the celestial tuber
   in all its forms: rotie, purée, not to mention
au gratin or boiled and oiled in la salade niçoise.
   Batata edulis discovered by gold-mad conquistadors
in the West Indies, and only a 100 years later
   in The Merry Wives of Windsor Falstaff cries,
"Let the skie raine Potatoes," for what would we be
   without you—lost in a sea of fried turnips,
mashed beets, roasted parsnips? Mi corazón, mon coeur,
   my core is not the heart but the stomach, tuber
of the body, its hollow stem the throat and esophagus,
   leafing out to the nose and eyes and mouth. Hail
the conquering spud, all its names marvelous: Solanum
   tuberosum, Igname, Caribe, Russian Banana, Yukon Gold.
When you turned black, Ireland mourned. O Mr. Potato Head,
   how many deals can a man make before he stops being
small potatoes? How many men can a woman drop
   like a hot potato? Eat it cooked or raw like an apple
with salt of the earth, apple of the earth, pomme de terre.
   Tuber, tuber burning bright in a kingdom without light,
deep within the earth where the Incan potato gods rule,
   forging their golden orbs for the world's ravening gorge.

"Ode to the Potato" by Barbara Hamby, from Babel. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, Germany (1879). He was taught at home for a while, and when he finally went to school, his teachers thought he was developmentally disabled. In high school, one of his teachers tried to expel him because all he did in class was sit in the back of the room smiling. He finally dropped out at the age of 16.

He barely made it through college, couldn't get a job in any science field, and finally found a job at the Swiss patent office, evaluating patent applications. In the evenings after he got home from the office, he worked on his own ideas about physics, and in 1905, he published four papers that revolutionized the field of physics and introduced among other things the Special Theory of Relativity and his famous equation, E = mc2.

It's the birthday of the photographer Diane Arbus, (books about this photographer) born Diane Nemerov in New York City (1923). She took portraits of transvestites, giants and dwarfs, twins, triplets, carnival performers, and sometimes ordinary people with troubling expressions or postures. She committed suicide in 1971, when she was 48 years old. She said: "I work from awkwardness. By that I mean if I stand in front of something instead of arranging it, I arrange myself."

It's the birthday of the woman who opened Shakespeare & Company bookstore, Sylvia Beach, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). Sylvia Beach moved to Paris, and there she met a woman named Adrienne Monnier. Monnier was one of the first women in France to open a bookstore, which was called La Maison des Amis des Livres (which translates as "The House of Friends of Books"). It was a store, a lending library, and a place to promote Modernist writers.

Sylvia Beach was so inspired by Monnier and her vision that in 1919 she opened her own English-language bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, on the Left Bank of Paris. Shakespeare and Company became a gathering place for the expatriate writers living in Paris — writers like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Sylvia Beach met James Joyce in 1920, just as he was finishing Ulysses. He couldn't get it published because all the big presses thought it was too obscene, so she offered to publish it for him, even though she'd never published a book before. To fund the project, she got people to buy advanced copies. She had no editors, so she edited the huge manuscript herself, and she published it on James Joyce's birthday, February 2, 1922.

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

 









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