May 11, 2002


by Maxine Kumin

(RealAudio) | How to listen

: "Appetite," by Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems: 1960-1990 (W.W. Norton & Co.).


I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father

tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream

my father
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon

men kill for this.

It's the birthday of Rachel Billington, born (1942). She's the author of a Jane Austen-style novel of manners, a psychological crime thriller, and thirteen other novels. She is also the daughter of a prominent British family of writers. Her father was a publisher, her mother was a journalist, and her sister and brother are both writers. Her uncle was the novelist Anthony Powell.

It's the birthday of Stanley Elkin, born in the Bronx (1930). He won the National Book Critic's Circle Award twice, the second time posthumously, for a novel called Mrs. Ted Bliss, about an eighty-five-year-old widow in Florida who finds herself befriending a drug dealer. A graduate student once told Elkin that writers write for emotional reasons. "No," Elkin said, "writers do not write for emotional reasons-they write because they want to make something. I asked her if she knew the Stephen Sondheim musical with the number about making a hat-'a hat, a hat, I made a hat where there never was a hat.' That's so moving to me I choke up when I tell you about it. That's why people write."

It's the birthday of Mari Sandoz born near Hay Springs, Nebraska (1896). Her father did not let her go to school until she was nine, and when her first story was printed, he locked her in the cellar. He told her artists and writers were "the maggots of society." After a dreadful early marriage, she remained single for the rest of her life, and she spent hours by herself in the basement of the State Historical Society, reading old newspapers with a flashlight. Her first success as a writer did not come until she was almost forty. When her memoir Old Jules was accepted for publication by the Atlantic Press, they told her to take out all the Nebraska colloquialisms she had worked so hard to preserve; they said Eastern readers would not understand them. She did not relent, and continued to write the way she heard people speak. Even her biography of Crazy Horse used speech and metaphors natural to the Oglaga Sioux, so far as she could ascertain them from interviews with his descendents.

It's the birthday of Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline, in Russia (1888). His father was a ritual slaughterer of chickens and the cantor of the community synagogue. The family moved to New York City to escape the pogroms, and Berlin went to work to support them when he was eight. He made more money from royalties than any other songwriter in history. He wrote "God Bless America" for an Army fundraiser during the First World War and then packed it away in a trunk. When Kate Smith asked him for a patriotic song on the eve of World War Two, he took it out again. He did a little work on it before he sent it off. One line ended, "from the green fields of Virginia to the gold fields out in Nome," but he changed it to "from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam." The royalties for performances of the song traditionally go to the Boy Scouts.

On this day in 1812 the waltz was introduced at Almack's dance hall in London. It was the first closed couple dance the English aristocracy had ever seen. Men and women embraced one another as they were dancing, and the men lifted the women over their thighs as the couples turned. Critics called it "disgusting."

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