Feb. 10, 2002

Working Late

by Louis Simpson

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Poem: "Working Late," by Louis Simpson from Caviar at the Funeral.

Working Late

A light is on in my father's study.
"Still up?" he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire-
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet…bang!
There would be the dead man's head
with a black hole in the forehead.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father's study
now shines as late in mine.

It's the birthday of British gerontologist and author Alexander (Alex) Comfort, born in London, England (1920). Although he's best known for his bestseller The Joy of Sex, he started his career as a poet, novelist, and physician. He became an expert on aging, and published several books on the subject in the Fifties and Sixties, but gained instant notoriety in 1972 with the publication of The Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking. Alex Comfort, who said: "There's nothing new in the book. It's just reassurance, telling people it's OK."

It's the birthday of German playwright Bertholt Brecht, born in Augsburg, Germany (1898). After World War One, he fell in with Dadaists and Marxists whose aim was to tear apart middle-class culture, and he began to see that theater could play an important role in stirring up society. He also developed a close collaboration with the composer Kurt Weill, with whom he wrote The Threepenny Opera (1928) and the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony (1930). With the rise of the Nazis, his Marxist leanings forced him to flee to Denmark, and then to the United States, where he settled in Hollywood. There he wrote some of his greatest plays, including Mother Courage and her Children (1941), The Life of Galileo (1943), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948). In 1947, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He testified, then immediately left the country for East Germany, where he lived for the rest of his life.

On this day in 1862, Lizzie Siddal, the wife of the English poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, died of an overdose of laudanum. A coroner's inquest ruled the cause to be an accidental overdose, but it was widely suspected to be suicide. Rossetti was so distraught that, at Lizzie's funeral a few days later, he slipped the only manuscript copy of his poems into the coffin with her. He told his friend Ford Madox Brown: "I have often been writing at those poems when Lizzie was ill and suffering, and I might have been attending to her, and now they shall go." The poems were buried, but over the next several years, Rossetti began to think better of what he'd done. In 1869 he arranged for his wife's body to be exhumed and the manuscript pulled out.

It's the birthday of English essayist Charles Lamb, born in London, England (1775). He became most famous for his personal essays in the London Magazine, published under the penname "Elia" and collected and published in two installments in 1823 and 1833. The essays were gentle and humorous and full of nostalgia for old times and old acquaintances. In an essay on "New Year's Eve," he wrote: "I am naturally, beforehand, shy of novelties; new books, new faces, new years-from some mental twist which makes it difficult in me to face the prospective. I have almost ceased to hope, and am sanguine only in the prospects of other, former years."

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




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