Jan. 25, 2003


by Mark Perlberg

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Poem: "Coda," by Mark Perlberg from The Impossible Toystore (Louisiana State University Press).

      for my mother

When I was six or seven
you stopped singing
as you moved about the house
as you dressed for evening

I'll see you again whenever
spring breaks through again
Time will lie heavy between

Remember the night

You played the piano
a piece with vivid Spanish

I recall the fringed peach shall
on the polished mahogany
When did you learn to play
you must have spent hours practicing
Why did you stop singing

If I had thought to ask
these questions when I was older
could you have found a way
to answer

It's the birthday of Virginia Woolf, born Virginia Steven in London, England (1882). Her father was the editor of a popular series of reference books, The Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf later said that she had been cramped in the womb by the weight of those heavy volumes. From an early age, her father gave her access to his extensive library, and he taught her, "To read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not." After the death of both her parents, she moved with her siblings into the unfashionable but cheap neighborhood of Bloomsbury, which soon became the literary and intellectual center of England. Woolf's brother hosted evening meetings that came to include D. H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and others. Woolf suffered most of her life from bouts of depression, and one doctor prescribed long walks as a remedy. It was on these walks that she conceived of many of her novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). These novels employed a new brand of stream of consciousness, distinct from James Joyce and others. She said, "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Burns, born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). The son of a poor farmer, he followed his father's example and spent the first half of his life engaged in the back-breaking labor of pre-modern farming. People in his village thought he was odd because he always carried a book, and they disapproved when they saw him reading as he drove his wagon slowly along the road. He got into trouble with the family of a girl named Jean Armour, who had become pregnant. He'd left another woman after she had become pregnant, but he loved Armour and didn't want her to suffer the indignities of being an unwed mother. Burns pursued a career as a poet and became known for his conversational poems about Scottish life in books like Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). He and his wife had nine children, the last one born on the day of Burns's funeral.

It's the birthday of African American novelist Gloria Naylor, born in Queens, New York (1950). She began her first book The Women of Brewster Place while attending Brooklyn College and working as a switchboard operator. The book, which focuses on the stories of several women who have come to live on the dead-end street, Brewster Place, won the American Book Award for best first novel in 1983.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Tobe Hooper, born in Austin, Texas (1943). In 1974 he co-wrote and directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many critics either condemned the film or refused to review it, but the London Film Festival named it outstanding film of the year. He went on to direct Poltergeist and Salem's Lot.

It's the birthday of author William Somerset Maugham, born in Paris, France (1874). He wrote the novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Of Human Bondage (1915), about Philip Carey -- a sensitive, orphaned boy born with a clubfoot, who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle, and eventually falls into a doomed love affair with a lady named Mildred. Maugham wrote, "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."

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