Dec. 22, 2009


by Anne Porter

Nobody in the hospital
Could tell the age
Of the old woman who
Was called Susanna

I knew she spoke some English
And that she was an immigrant
Out of a little country
Trampled by armies

Because she had no visitors
I would stop by to see her
But she was always sleeping

All I could do
Was to get out her comb
And carefully untangle
The tangles in her hair

One day I was beside her
When she woke up
Opening small dark eyes
Of a surprising clearness

She looked at me and said
You want to know the truth?
I answered Yes

She said it's something that
My mother told me

There's not a single inch
Of our whole body
That the Lord does not love

She then went back to sleep.

"Susanna" by Anne Porter, from Living Things: Collected Poems. © Zoland Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Rexroth, (books by this author) born on this day in South Bend, Indiana (1905). Kenneth Rexroth published more than 50 books of poetry, including The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and In Defense of the Earth (1956).

It's the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany (1858). Puccini's four greatest operas are La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot, which was left incomplete at Puccini's death in 1924.

It's Christmas week, and we're celebrating with Christmas stories. There's a darkly comic story by British author Evelyn Waugh, (books by this author) written in 1934, about a reclusive aristocratic octogenarian Irish spinster who decides to give a huge elaborate festive bash as a last big hurrah. Waugh's "Bella Fleace Gave a Party" is set in the north of Ireland, in the countryside outside a town called Ballingar.

Bella Fleace has a nose that's "prominent and blue veined," eyes that are "pale blue, blank, and mad," a lively smile, and speech of "marked Irish Intonation." She walks with a limp and lives among moss-covered hills in a stately but declining 18th-century mansion she'd inherited from her brother.

She's been visited by her heir, a distant cousin from England, a young man with a "BBC voice." She thoroughly dislikes him. He spends a couple days poking and prodding at her things, speculating at their monetary value, and he's especially impressed with a collection of rare first-edition volumes that she owns. She's mildly, silently infuriated — she's not dead yet! — and to spite him she goes down and sells the rare books herself. She gets 1,000 pounds for them. She decides to throw a huge party with the money.

The notion of a big festive ball invigorates the limping octogenarian, and she hurls herself into the preparations: arranging for caterers, ambitiously remodeling the old house, hiring extra servants. She sits down to write the guest list. Waugh writes, "Many of those whose names were transcribed were dead or bedridden; some whom she just remembered seeing as small children were reaching retiring age in remote corners of the globe; many of the houses she wrote down were blackened shells, burned down during the troubles and never rebuilt." There's gossip in the countryside by other aristocratic women who have received word of the party but not an invitation to it, and they're mystified.

In the days before the party, Bella Fleace has a Dublin dressmaker make her a "magnificent gown of crimson satin," gets satin shoes and long white gloves, pulls out all of her expensive keepsake jewelry, and arranges for a coiffeur from Dublin to come to do her hair.

It is the day of the ball. She wakes up early, excited, and lies in bed thinking about what all must be done before the clock strikes 8:00 p.m., the time of the ball. There are hundreds of candles to arrange and light, linens and silverware to set out, chrysanthemums to position along the halls and stairway.

The house looks immaculate in its candlelight. The clock strikes eight. Nobody comes. She waits and waits. Midnight comes and goes, and still not one person has arrived. She decides to eat supper, and the butler brings her quail and champagne, which she quietly savors. She announces coolly that there must be some mistake, very disappointing after all their trouble, and tells the band that they may go home.

And then guests start arriving. Her butler announces them from the bottom of the staircase. They are uninvited guests, two ladies and their husbands whom Bella had purposely omitted when writing out the invitations. Bella tells them with great formality that she hadn't expected the honor of their presence; please forgive her for not being able to entertain them. The guests are aghast and leave. Bella Fleace sits down and is carried to the sofa by a hired footman. She says, "I don't quite know what's happening. ... They came uninvited, those two ... and nobody else." She dies the next day.

Her heir, the distant cousin from England, comes for her funeral and spends a week sorting through her things: "Among them, he found in her escritoire, stamped, addressed, but unposted, the invitations to the ball."

Evelyn Waugh's "Bella Fleace Gave a Party" can be found in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (1998). It can also be found in a collection entitled Christmas Stories (2007), edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, part of the Everyman's Pocket Classics series: http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Stories-Everymans-Library-Cloth/dp/0307267172

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