Dec. 17, 2002


by Wesley McNair

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Poem: "Home," by Wesley McNair from Fire (David R. Godine, Publisher).


Under bands of light
in the long hall, the old
woman walks, her face
bright as if she knows
where she is going
and dull again and bright
and dull again; she turns
and walks the other way.
The man in #203 stands
in the back field
all afternoon calling
the hired man. Johnson
is also the name of the one
in the wheelchair
though he would not
respond to it, now reduced
to the question
on his face: What
happened to me?
Near him in the lobby,
squinting, Do I Know You
leans forward, and beside her,
face fastened
to an oxygen tube,
I'm Scared. They don't
raise their eyes to the TV,
jumping with its
fake life. Three times
a day they hold
their forks and do not
eat their food. And when
the family arrives, tourists
from a country they'll never
see again, they can't think how
they have ended up
in the home
where they are all
homeless, or why
they are waving back
to those they hardly recall,
or why their visitors
are smiling.

It's the birthday of Penelope Fitzgerald, born in Lincoln (1916). She wrote The Blue Flower, which won the National Book Award in 1998. She didn't publish her first novel until she was sixty and, coincidentally or not, her husband and her father were both dead. Until she died at eighty-three, she published nine more novels and three biographies. She said, "One should write lives of people one admires; novels about people who are sadly mistaken."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, born in New Zealand (1908). She wrote several novels, and a memoir, Teacher (1963). Ashton-Warner thirsted to be a writer or a concert pianist or a painter or anything other than a teacher like her mother, but she ended up teaching in rural New Zealand schools for fifteen years. She had a gift for reaching the failures in the group, the children who didn't want to be there any more than she did. She said about her first year, "The truth is that I am enslaved...in one vast love affair with seventy children."

It's the birthday of Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Hermann Hueffer, in Surrey (1873). He edited the Transatlantic Review, published Joyce and Hemingway, and co-wrote three potboilers with Joseph Conrad when he was twenty-four and Conrad was in his mid-forties. His best-known novel is The Good Soldier (1915). He wrote a dedication for a later edition ten years after its original publication, and said in it that he had intended to do for the English novel what Maupassant had done for the French with his novel, Stronger than Death. Once, a young man, upon meeting Ford, said enthusiastically, "By Jove, The Good Soldier is the finest novel ever written in the English language." A friend of Ford's standing by said, "It is, but you have left out a word. It is the finest French novel ever written in the English language."

It's the birthday of Jules de Goncourt, born in Paris (1830). He and his brother Edmond started out writing histories constructed from the tiniest minutiae of their subjects' lives, bills and diary entries, notes and song lyrics, all thrown in together like collages. They inherited a fortune from their father which he told them they must use to start a literary academy, and they kept that promise, too; that organization now awards the Prix de Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize in French literature.

It's the birthday of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, born near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807), in a little house built by his great-great-great-grandfather in 1688. He wrote the poem "Snowbound," which made him enough money to retire on, and "Barbara Frietchie," a staple of the nineteenth-century recital stage. "'Shoot if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag,' she said."

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




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