Sep. 26, 2002

Days of 1978

by Gerald Stern

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Poem: "Days of 1978," by Gerald Stern from This Time: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton).

Days of 1978

This is the only thing that clarifies my life,
this beautiful old living room
with the pink walls and the mohair sofa.
I walk out every night singing
a little song from Gus Williams or W.C. Handy.
I throw my yellow scarf around my neck
and pull my cap down over my eyes.
Even here I am dressed up,
walking through the light flakes and the ice puddles.
-Tonight I will think about Cavafy
and the way he wept on his satin pillow,
remembering the days of 1903.
I will compare my life to his:
the sorrows of Alexandria,
the lights on the river;
the dead kings returning to Syria,
the soap in my bath.
-Later I will lie on my own pillow
with the window open and the blinds up,
weeping a little myself at the thick blankets
and the smoking candles
and the stack of books,
a new sweetness and clarity beginning
to monopolize my own memory.

It's the birthday of Gloria Anzaldua born in Jesus Maria of the Valley, Texas (1942). She grew up in a family of migrant laborers, and could never persuade her mother that reading and writing were not things that only lazy people did. Her book Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) is a mixture of memoir, poetry and Aztec myth, written in a mixture of Spanish and English.

It's the birthday of George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York (1898). When his family bought a piano for his brother Ira and the delivery men brought it into their apartment through the window, Gershwin sat right down on the bench and started to play it. He got a job playing songs for impresarios prospecting for new material, and he and his brother Ira began writing songs for Broadway shows. The band leader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to write a jazz composition for his group, but Gershwin forgot all about their agreement until he saw, with a jolt, a newspaper announcement of a Whiteman concert with Gershwin's concerto advertised as part of the program-and the concert date was only a couple of weeks away. He wrote "Rhapsody in Blue" in time for it to be orchestrated by Whiteman's arranger, but there was no time for Gershwin to write out his own solo parts. He said he'd just nod to Whiteman when he was finished playing, and he improvised most of it there onstage.

It's the birthday of Thomas Stearns Eliot, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1888). He wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), and "The Waste Land" (1922). At the height of his career, when he was writing poetry, plays, literary criticism, and serving as director of the British publisher Faber & Faber, he was the twentieth century's single most influential writer. He was dry and enigmatic, and he spoke very, very slowly. Yet he loved the Marx Brothers, and was said to harbor a weakness for squirting buttonholes and exploding cigars. Somebody once said to Eliot that most editors are failed writers. Eliot said: "Yes. So are most writers."

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