Aug. 15, 2013


by Mary Jo Salter

As punishment, my father said, the nuns
     would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day's erasers.

Punishment? The pounding symphony
     of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm's length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
     powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
     for all the hours they'd sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
     black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
     Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
     My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
     those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
     can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn't spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
     who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.

"Erasers" by Mary Jo Salter, from Open Shutters. © Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Sir Walter Scott (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1771), one of the most influential novelists of all time. He is responsible for many famous phrases, including "blood is thicker than water" and "O, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practise to deceive!"

Scott didn't handle money well, though. To pay off his debts, he published a novel, Waverley (1814), anonymously. It was a huge best-seller. He went on to write many other popular historical novels about the end of the old Scotland. He is best known for his works Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819).

It's the birthday of Thomas De Quincey (books by this author), born in Manchester, England (1785). A friend for a while of the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, De Quincey was a well-known essayist, with his work appearing in many popular periodicals. But he is best known as the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), the first drug addiction memoir, which greatly influenced later generations of bohemian writers, from Charles Baudelaire to William S. Burroughs.

De Quincey began using opium at a time when it was a perfectly legal, common painkiller, sold in liquid form as laudanum. He was a 19-year-old college student when he had his first experience with the drug. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and he'd been suffering from a toothache. But later in life, he became hopelessly addicted. In the memoir, he vividly describes the joys and sufferings produced by the drug.

It's the birthday of food critic Julia Child (books by this author), born in Pasadena, California (1912). She was a tomboy as a child, and grew to be more than six feet tall. When she went to college, she wanted to be a basketball star before she changed her mind and tried to write a novel. But that didn't work out either.

During World War II, she got a job with the Office of Strategic Service and hoped to become a spy, but instead she worked as a file clerk. She got to know her future husband, Paul Child, in China, and they both became obsessed with Chinese cuisine. When they got back to the United States, they married, and she started taking cooking lessons. She later said, "I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate."

It's the birthday of Mary Jo Salter (1954) (books by this author), born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A highly regarded formalist poet, Salter works with meter and rhyme rather than free verse, crafting quatrains and sonnets and villanelles. She's published several poetry collections, including A Kiss in Space (1999), Open Shutters (2005), and Phone Call to the Future (2008).

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




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