Wednesday

Jun. 9, 2010

Mexico

by Robert Hass

I have just crossed the Rio Grande,
And by a string of clever switchbacks
Have, for the moment, outwitted the posse.

Ahead lie the ghosts of Sierra Madre.
Behind, I have nothing but sun,
While the condor's shadow circles over my bones.

Though the mountains are steep, my horse doesn't falter,
And now I know why starving bandoleros
Will never shoot their animals for food.

Beyond my mirage, I see the white adobe—
Yes, the one with the red-tiled roof—
Which one afternoon I will lean against, with my hat down
And knees up, after a bottle of tequila.

In that siesta, I am sure to dream
Of the lovely senorita
Who has stolen away from her father
To meet me in the orchard.

But enough of that. There is work to be done.
I have cattle to rustle and horses to steal
Before the posse picks up my trail.

(In a poem of Mexico, it would be unwise
For a poet to mention the posse is his wife.)

So, mi amigo, if you find her
Prowling my mountains
With a wooden spoon in her hand,
Tell her I am not here.

Tell her I have run off
With Cormac McCarthy and Louis L'Amour,
That I ride like the wind
To join up with the great Pancho Villa.

"Mexico" by Robert Hass, from Counting Thunder. © David Robert Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the lines:

The girls today in society
Go for classical poetry
So to win their hearts one must quote (with ease)
Aeschylus and Euripides. …
But the poet of them all
Who will start 'em simply ravin'
Is the poet people call
The bard of Stratford-on-Avon!
Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now,
Brush up your Shakespeare,
And the women you will wow.

Cole Porter, born in Peru, Indiana, in 1891. He went to Yale University, where he got horrible grades but wrote and performed more than 300 songs for school shows. He went off to Europe and eventually settled in Paris, where he lived for most of the 1920s. In 1928, he wrote his first big hit, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," which begins, "Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it." After that his career took off, and he ended up writing hundreds of songs for movies, television, and Broadway shows.

It's the birthday of novelist Charles Webb, (books by this author) born in San Francisco, California, 1939. He wrote a book that became one of the iconic films of the 1960s: The Graduate (1963; film version, 1967). Not many people realize that The Graduate is based on a book, but in fact the dialogue in the film comes almost entirely from the novel.

Webb grew up in Pasadena, California, and he turned down an inheritance from his father who was a wealthy doctor. He wrote The Graduate in the poolside bar of the Pasadena Huntington Hotel, and he based it loosely on his own experience: He was attracted to the wife of a friend of his parents, and he decided "it might be better to write about it than to do it." When The Graduate was published, he was 24 years old.

It was on this day in 1860, exactly 150 years ago, that the first "dime novel" was published: Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter, by Ann S. Stephens. (books by this author)

Most dime novels were filled with crime, violence, and romance. They were mostly set in America during romanticized periods in the nation's short history — the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or on the frontier. There were mistaken identities, villains, love stories, daring escapes, and sudden wealth. Outlaws like Jesse James and Buffalo Bill were heroes, women were swept off their feet by ne'er-do-wells, the life of frontier settlers seemed much more exciting than that of regular people stuck in nice towns, and violence was glorified. Dime novels were perceived as dangerous, especially for young people, on whom they might have a bad influence.

The content of Malaeska was no exception. Malaeska is a Native American, and her husband is white. And although he adores her, he makes no attempt to introduce her to any of his friends or relations, and has dramatic internal struggles over his son's biracial identity. Then the settlers and the tribe become hostile, and Malaeska's husband and her father end up killing each other. As her husband is dying, he orders his wife to take their son and have him raised a Christian by his white grandparents. They take in the boy, but force Malaeska to become a servant, and the boy grows up believing he is white, and gets engaged. But just before he is married, Malaeska reveals that she is his mother, and her son is so upset at the idea that he almost disgraced a "pure" white woman by marrying her, that he kills himself, and Malaeska dies of grief.

In 1872, Harriet Beecher Stowe (books by this author) wrote to Louisa May Alcott: (books by this author) "In my many fears for my country and in these days when so much seductive and dangerous literature is pushed forward, the success of your domestic works has been to me most comforting." She was referring, of course, to Little Women and its sequels; but in fact, Alcott preferred writing potboilers, and thought that Little Women was boring.

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

 









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