Dec. 19, 2002


by Wesley McNair

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


Who could have guessed he would choose
to spend so much of his time bent over
a shovel, one wrist so weak he wore
an ace bandage on it, his asthmatic lungs
forcing him to stop for breath again
and again. "Never mind," he would say to us,
his three young stepsons, when we stopped,
too, "get back to work."

                                      Every weekend
for a whole winter, we hauled cinders
from the paper mill to level the driveway.
That next spring he had us digging holes
for the barn's corner posts, angry that we kept
fighting with one another in our anger
about the endlessness of banging our shovels
into the nearly frozen ground. Why did he
drive us that way? Why was he so hard
on himself, always the last one to come
in the house out of the dark?

                                      One summer
we dug until we found ourselves inside
a waist-high trench he said would bring water
up from the river to the plants of his nursery.
"You'll never get anywhere," he told us,
"until you learn the meaning of work."
Above ground in the moonlight, as I return
through this poem, the tall grass has no idea
where we laid that pipe. The sprinkler system
for the nursery, dead for years, has forgotten why.
All the truckloads of fill we brought to prevent
the bank's erosion are on their way down
into the river. In the back of the old barn,
its aluminum siding curled from the weather,
the shovels we once used stand upside-down
against the wall in the window's light like flowers,
making a kind of memorial to the work
we did then, some with blunted points, some
scalloped at the center, where after all those years
of shoveling, they shoveled themselves away.

It's the birthday of Edith Piaf, born Edith Giovanna Gassion in Paris, France (1915). She was one of the best-known voices of her time. She sang "La Vie en Rose," which she wrote herself, and other songs. The man who booked her for her first nightclub job in Paris nicknamed her piaf, "sparrow." Her life was so full of scandal that the Archbishop of Paris refused to say Mass for her when she died, but forty thousand people came to her funeral, and traffic in Paris came to a standstill.

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Jean Genet, born in Paris, France (1910), author of The Balcony (1957), and The Maids (1961). He wrote revolutionary theatre, but he wasn't interested in writing revolutionary French; people said his prose was beautiful in the traditional French manner.

It's the birthday of Eleanor Hodgman Porter, born in Littleton, New Hampshire (1868). She's the author of the sentimental novel Pollyanna, about a little orphan girl who tries to find something to be glad about no matter how bad things look.

It's the birthday of Constance Garnett, born in Brighton, England (1862). She translated works of the Russian masters: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol and Turgenev, although some said without any of the humor of the originals.

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




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