Jun. 3, 2002

Escape from Paradise, Iowa

by Kathryn Kysar

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Poem: "Escape from Paradise, Iowa," by Kathryn Kysar from Dark Lake (Loonfeather Press).

Escape from Paradise, Iowa

We are afraid of nothing.
At the diner,
you order a burger,
a grilled cheese for me.
We tell bad jokes,
pour salt on the table.
The waitress glares at us,
our clothes too tight,
my lipstick too red
for this small town.

This is the summer
of anger and beer.
We know everything:
how each blade of grass turns in the wind,
why the sunlight glints off the pool,
the shining of streetlights on black pavement,
the darkness of the lake at night.

At the bar
you say I am as Nordic
as blonde hair, these big bones
under the sheet of my skin
a frame for your thoughts.
I am the only one smoking.
My breath peels into the air like waves.

We have nothing in this town:
a beat-up Mustang,
a few songs on the jukebox,
the torn cover of a book you never read.
When we get in the car,
you pass me another beer.

We are scared of these random roads,
the small towns passing,
the gas tank nearly empty.
My head on your shoulder,
the eight track stuck again,
we're gonna drive this dirt road
all the way to Kansas City.

It's the birthday of Larry McMurtry, born in Wichita Falls, Texas (1936). His novel Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, and he began to hear stories about men in bars trying to pick women up by telling them that they were Larry McMurtry. Not long afterward he had bypass surgery, and with the surgery experienced a sudden, full-scale breakdown. He was so depressed that he could neither read nor write for several years. He runs a huge bookstore in Archer, Texas, which is housed in four buildings, and has the largest stock of used books between Manhattan and Berkeley. He grew up in Archer, and said that when he was a boy, there were no books there at all, and he wanted to fix that. He wrote about Archer in an early novel, The Last Picture Show, portraying it as "a town full of stupid people who were interested in unspeakable things." His mother said she read a hundred pages of the book and then hid it in the closet.

It's the birthday of Allen Ginsberg, born in Newark (1926). His mother sank into mental illness when Ginsberg was still a child and she died in an asylum. His monumental poem "Kaddish," which he wrote in one forty-hour session, was an elegy to her. He met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs while he was a student at Columbia, and threw himself into a prolonged period of literary, sexual and hallucinogenic experimentation. After he was kicked out of school and in 1954 he moved to San Francisco, where he gave an electrifying public reading of his poem "Howl!" which he had composed in what he called his "Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath," and which became the manifesto of the Beat movement. He died of cancer in 1997, and he was so prolific that in the twenty-four hours before he slipped into a coma, he wrote twelve poems.

On this day in 1924, Franz Kafka died. He wrote to his friend Max Brod, "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.... Yours, Franz Kafka." But Brod had already told him that he would never destroy any of Kafka's manuscripts-not even if Kafka himself told him to-and critics are skeptical about the sincerity of Kafka's request. The three novels Kafka left behind-The Trial, Amerika, and The Castle-were all published by Brod, who made substantial changes to the manuscripts.

It's the birthday of Josephine Baker, born Frieda Josephine Carson in St. Louis, Missouri (1906). She was told that she was "too skinny and too dark" to be a chorus girl at the Plantation Club, but she worked backstage and learned all the routines and went on as an understudy. Instead of acting cool and sophisticated on stage, she rolled her eyes and pretended to fall over things. Audiences loved her. When she got a job in Paris with Le Revue Negre, she was an instant sensation. She wore skimpy costumes made of feathers and bananas, and sang and danced in a way no one had ever seen before. French audiences were mad for her. She once said that she had received 1500 marriage proposals, and she made more money than any other entertainer in Europe. When she died, the French government buried her with full military honors.

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