Jun. 14, 2009

Yard Sale

by Jane Kenyon

Under the stupefying sun
my family's belongings lie on the lawn
or heaped on borrowed card tables
in the gloom of the garage. Platters,
frying pans, our dead dog's
dish, box upon box of sheet music,
a wad of my father's pure linen
hand-rolled handkerchiefs, and his books
on the subsistence farm, a dream
for which his constitution ill suited him.

My niece dips seashells
in a glass of Coke. Sand streaks giddily
between the bubbles to the bottom. Brown runnels
seem to scar her arm. "Do something silly!"
she begs her aunt. Listless,
I put a lampshade on my head.
Not good enough.

My brother takes pity on her
and they go walking together along the river
in places that seemed numinous
when we were five and held hands
with our young parents.
                                 She comes back
triumphant, with a plastic pellet box the size
of a bar of soap, which her father has clipped
to the pouch of her denim overalls. In it,
a snail with a slate-blue shell, and a few
blades of grass to make it feel like home….

Hours pass. We close the metal strongbox
and sit down, stunned by divestiture.
What would he say? My niece
produces drawings and hands them over shyly:

a house with flowers, family
standing shoulder to shoulder
near the door under an affable sun,
and one she calls "Ghost with Long Legs."

"Yard Sale" by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Flag Day here in the United States. Two hundred thirty-two years ago, on this day in 1777, the government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag.

It's the birthday of American writer John Edgar Wideman, (books by this author)born in Washington, D.C. (1941). He grew up in Pittsburgh, was a basketball star and won prizes for creative writing, got a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, and then went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Some of his favorite topics are jazz, basketball, and race relations. He's written many books, including the novels Sent for you Yesterday (1983) and Philadelphia Fire (1990) and the memoir Hoop Roots (2001). He said, "Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up. But the writing is a way of not allowing those things to destroy you."

It's the birthday of the screenwriter Diablo Cody, (books by this author) born Brook Busey in Lemont, Illinois (1978). She started a popular blog about life as a stripper, and a talent agent came across it and helped her publish her memoir: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper (2005). Then he suggested that she write a screenplay, and in just a couple of months sitting with her laptop in the Starbucks section of a Target store in Minneapolis, she wrote the screenplay for Juno (2007), which became a surprise hit — it got great reviews, and it is the highest-grossing movie in the history of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

It's the birthday of John Bartlett, (books by this author) born in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1820), the man who published Familiar Quotations (1855). As a teenager, Bartlett started working at the University Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he was so good at memorizing quotations and trivia that "Ask John Bartlett" became a common phrase on the Harvard campus. He started keeping a book of quotes as a personal reference, which became Familiar Quotations. The book is now in its 17th edition — among the new additions in this edition are Kingsley Amis, Mother Teresa, Maya Angelou, and Bill Clinton.

It's the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, (books by this author) the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), born in Litchfield, Connecticut (1811). Her father was a minister who preached against slavery, and Harriet grew up with 10 brothers and sisters, many of whom became reformers, working for education, women's suffrage, or the abolitionist movement. Harriet got married, had seven children, and she lived for many years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ohio was a free state, but Cincinnati was just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more than 10,000 copies in its first week of publication, and it went on to be a huge best seller. The story goes that when Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War!"

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