Mar. 10, 2003

A Starlit Night

by B. H. Fairchild

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Poem: "A Starlit Night," by B.H. Fairchild from Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest (W.W. Norton & Company).

A Starlit Night

All over America at this hour men are standing
by an open closet door, slacks slung over one arm,
staring at wire hangers, thinking of taxes
or a broken faucet or their first sex: the smell
of back-seat Naugahyde, the hush of a maize field
like breathing, the stars rushing, rushing away.

And a woman lies in an unmade bed watching
the man she has known twenty-one, no,
could it be? twenty-two years, and she is listening
to the polonaise climbing up through radio static
from the kitchen where dishes are piled
and the linoleum floor is a great, gray sea.

It's the A-flat polonaise she practiced endlessly,
never quite getting it right, though her father,
calling from the darkened TV room, always said,
"Beautiful, kiddo!" and the moon would slide across
the lacquered piano top as if it were something
that lived underwater, something from far below.

They both came from houses with photographs,
the smell of camphor in closets, board games
with missing pieces, sunburst clocks in the kitchen
that made them, each morning, a little sad.
They didn't know what they wanted, every night,
every starlit night of their lives, and now they have it.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright and screenwriter David Rabe, born in Dubuque, Iowa (1940). He is the author of a trilogy of books about Vietnam: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1969), Sticks and Bones, (1972); and Streamers (1975).

It's the birthday of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa (1903). He was the first white jazz celebrity. He played the piano and cornet at a young age, but he heard no jazz until he was a teenager, when he got his hands on a record by a New Orleans group called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He learned by copying the leader's cornet lines note for note. He never really learned to read music, and for eight years he played left-handed. After he was expelled from high school for skipping too much class, he worked gigs around Chicago and on boats on Lake Michigan. He joined up with a band called the Wolverines in 1923; they toured from the Midwest to New York and made Beiderbecke's first records. He was an alcoholic and died early, at age 28, during an alcoholic seizure. "With the aid of booze," said Eddie Condon, "he drove away all other things - food, sleep, women, ambition, vanity, desire. He played the piano and the cornet, that was all."

Zelda Fitzgerald died on this day in 1948. In 1930 she suffered a mental breakdown, and mental illness kept her in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life. She died in a fire at the Highland Hospital outside Asheville, North Carolina -- she was trapped on the top floor with six other patients; the doors were locked, the windows were chained, and the wooden fire escapes burned. The day before she died she wrote to her daughter, Scottie: "Today there is promise of spring in the air and an aura of sunshine over the mountains..." Zelda Fitzgerald once said, "I wish I could write a beautiful book to break those hearts that are soon to cease to exist: a book of faith and small neat worlds and of people who live by the philosophies of popular songs."

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