Feb. 8, 2002

Exchanging Hats

by Elizabeth Bishop

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Poem: "Exchanging Hats," by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux).

Exchanging Hats

Unfunny uncles who insist
in trying on a lady's hat,
-oh, even if the joke falls flat,
we share your slight transvestite twist

in spite of our embarrassment.
Costume and custom are complex.
The headgear of the other sex
inspires us to experiment.

Anandrous aunts, who, at the beach
with paper plates upon your laps,
keep putting on the yachtsmen's caps
with exhibitionistic screech,

the visors hanging o'er the ear
so that the golden anchors drag,
-the tides of fashion never lag.
Such caps may not be worn next year.

Or you who don the paper plate
itself, and put some grapes upon it,
or sport the Indian's feather bonnet,
-perversities may aggravate

the natural madness of the hatter.
And if the opera hats collapse
and crowns grow draughty, then, perhaps,
he thinks what might a miter matter?

Unfunny uncle, you who wore a
hat too big, or one too many,
tell us, can't you, are there any
stars inside your black fedora?

Aunt exemplary and slim,
with avernal eyes, we wonder
what slow changes they see under
their vast, shady, turned-down brim.

It's the birthday of Beat Generation icon Neal Cassady, born in Salt Lake City, Utah (1926). Although he never published anything in his lifetime, he wrote hundreds of letters, some over twenty thousand words long, to friends like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac was so impressed with Cassady that he used him as the model for the character Dean Moriarty, in On the Road. After his death in 1968, three volumes of his letters were published.

It's the birthday of American poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). After her graduation from Vassar, she traveled extensively, and for many years lived in Brazil. She wrote slowly and published very little; her Complete Poems includes barely one hundred poems. The work she did publish earned her acclaim as "a poet's poet," and in 1956 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her collection, Poems: North and South (1955).

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Kate (O'Flaherty) Chopin, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1850). She was raised in a family of independent women, married at twenty, and widowed at thirty-two when her husband died heavily in debt. Her husband had been a cotton trader in New Orleans, and while she lived there she soaked up the colorful Creole and Cajun culture. After she'd settled her husband's debts, she moved back to St. Louis, where to earn a living she turned to writing stories that drew on her experiences in Louisiana. After years of hard work, her first collection of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894), finally brought her fame. A second volume of short stories, A Night in Acadie (1897), was followed by her most famous work, the short novel The Awakening (1899), about a young woman's struggle for liberation. The book was treated harshly by reviewers, who were scandalized by its sensuality. After Chopin died in 1904, the novel was nearly forgotten, only to be rediscovered as feminism took hold in the late 1960s.

It's the birthday of French science fiction novelist Jules Verne, born in Nantes, France (1828). His vivid imagination took him to the center of the earth in A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), to the bottom of the ocean in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and around the world in a balloon in Around the World in Eighty Days (1874). In all, he wrote nearly eighty books, and predicted numerous technological developments of the twentieth century, including submarines, television, and space travel. He said: "Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real."

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