Tuesday

Sep. 24, 2013

The Necessity for Irony

by Eavan Boland

On Sundays,
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.

There I would
lean over tables,
absorbed by
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
obvious whenever—
which was not often—

I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.

When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:

Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory,—

and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings—reproach me now,
remind me
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
searching—oh irony!—
for beautiful things.

"The Necessity for Irony" by Eavan Boland, from The Lost Land. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day by order of the Act of September 22, 1789, that the federal government officially established the United States Post Office and the office of the postmaster general, who was to report directly to the president. A network of 75 post offices already existed throughout the country — in fact, the position of postmaster general had been created years before, when Benjamin Franklin was appointed to the job by the Continental Congress. But the Act provided for the continuation and expansion of these services under the brand-new Constitution. The federal government would deliver the mail of American citizens — like, for instance, a letter from a young boy, born centuries later on the same day the Act was signed into law, sent to his hero, also born on the same day.

Today is the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author), born Francis Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Minnesota (1896). The son of a would-be furniture manufacturer who never quite made it big in business, Fitzgerald grew up feeling like a "poor boy in a rich town," in spite of his middle-class upbringing. This impression was only strengthened when he attended Princeton, paid for by an aunt, where he was enthralled by the leisure class, tried out and was cut from the football team, and fell in love with a beautiful young socialite who would marry a wealthy business associate of her father's. By the time Fitzgerald dropped out of college and entered the Army — wearing a Brooks Brothers-tailored uniform — it was little wonder he called the autobiographical novel he was writing The Romantic Egotist.

Fitzgerald's time at an officer training camp in Alabama didn't turn out as he'd hoped, either; the war ended before he ever made it to Europe, his book was rejected, and when he failed to make it big in New York City, his new debutante girlfriend, Zelda Sayre, called off their engagement.

Fitzgerald was probably much like most young men of his generation who dreamed of being a football star, the war hero, the wealthy big shot, the guy who gets the girl, but he actually had talent, drive, and an unshakeable faith that he could translate all that familiar yearning into something new. His revised book, This Side of Paradise, was a triumphant success. Requests for his writing came pouring in, Zelda married him, and the two of them — a Midwesterner and a Southerner — became the quintessential New York couple, the epitome of the Jazz Age, a term Fitzgerald himself coined. And although they eventually died separated, she in a mental hospital, he in debt and obscurity, Fitzgerald's two greatest regrets remained, for the rest of his life, having failed to serve overseas and play Princeton football.

He said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

And his daughter, "Scottie" Fitzgerald, said about her parents, "People who live entirely by the fertility of their imaginations are fascinating, brilliant and often charming, but they should be sat next to at dinner parties, not lived with."

It's the birthday of "Blind" Lemon Jefferson, born on a farm in Couchman, Texas, in about 1893. There is a lot of conflicting information about Jefferson and most of it comes from others' memories of him. Census records and his draft registration don't agree on a date or even a year of birth. There are only two confirmed photographs of him. No one knows much about his musical training, but it seems he first picked up the guitar when he was a young teenager. Former residents of nearby Wortham, Texas, remember him playing his guitar in front of the bank at lunchtime, collecting change in a tin cup.

Jefferson began playing picnics and parties in the region, and eventually he made his way to Dallas. He performed every day on the corner of Central and Elm, near a train stop where the black workers would get off at the end of their day to visit the neighborhood bars and dance halls. Stories vary, but Dallas was probably the place where he first met fellow blues musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, prior to World War I. Lead Belly had been in the business longer, but Jefferson was the better musician, and Lead Belly later wrote "Blind Lemon's Blues" in tribute to his friend and erstwhile music partner. Another legend holds that Jefferson hired a young T-Bone Walker to guide him around Dallas. Jefferson paid Walker in guitar lessons, and Walker went on to become a blues legend in his own right. Jefferson may have made money on the side as a bootlegger and a professional wrestler, depending on who's telling the story. He also had a way with the ladies, according to blues singer Victoria Spivey, who recalled in 1966: "Although he was supposed to be completely blind, I still believe he could see a little bit. If he couldn't, he darn sure could feel his way 'round — the old wolf!"

In the early 1920s, Jefferson began traveling: to the Mississippi Delta, and Memphis, and maybe even farther than that. Late in 1925, he was "discovered" by a Texas talent scout, who took Jefferson to Paramount Records in Chicago; there he recorded two gospel songs under an alias. Over the next three years, he recorded nearly a hundred songs and became the first country blues musician to develop a national following. He was expected to produce one record a month, and in between recording sessions, he traveled around the South. Everybody had a story about seeing him at the local venue. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to "see" even through sightless eyes; musician Lance Lipscomb said later: "He had a tin cup, wired on the neck of his guitar. And when you pass to give him something, why he'd thank you. But he would never take no pennies. You could drop a penny in there and he'd know the sound. He'd take and throw it away." Delta musician Ishman Lacey said, "He carried a pearl-handled .44, and he could shoot the head off a chicken. And he couldn't see nary a lick. Just did it from the sound he heard."

His death of heart failure is also shrouded in mystery. His body was found on a Chicago street after an especially brutal December snowstorm, and it's been said he was the victim of a car accident, or attacked by a dog, or robbed and killed over royalty money, or abandoned by his chauffeur, or poisoned by a jealous lover, or simply lost his way. He was only about 36 years old. He was buried in Wortham, Texas, in a grave that remained unmarked until 1967; in the 1990s, fans raised money to erect a granite marker engraved with Jefferson's own lyrics: "Lord, it's one kind favor I'll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean."

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

 









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