Mar. 31, 2003

The Day My Mother Died

by Marge Piercy

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Poem: "The day my mother died," by Marge Piercy from Colors Passing Through Us (Alfred A. Knopf).

The day my mother died

I seldom have premonitions of death.
That day opened like any
ordinary can of tomatoes.

The alarm drilled into my ear.
The cats stirred and one leapt off.
The scent of coffee slipped into my head

like a lover into my arms and I sighed,
drew the curtains and examined
the face of the day.

I remember no dreams of loss.
No dark angel rustled ominous wings
or whispered gravely.

I was caught by surprise
like the trout that takes the fly
and I gasped in the fatal air.

You were gone suddenly as a sound
fading in the coil of the ear
no trace, no print, no ash

just the emptiness of stilled air.
My hunger feeds on itself.
My hands are stretched out

to grasp and find only their
own weight bearing them down
toward the dark cold earth.

Literary Notes:

The 300-meter Eiffel Tower in Paris was opened on this day in 1889. It was built for the Paris Exposition as part of the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution and also as a demonstration of the structural capabilities of iron. The tower elicited strong reactions after its opening. A petition of 300 names, including writers Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas the younger, was sent to the city government protesting its construction. The petition read, "We, the writers, painters, sculptors, architects and lovers of the beauty of Paris, do protest with all our vigor and all our indignation, in the name of French taste and endangered French art and history, against the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower."

It's the birthday of the composer Franz Joseph Haydn, born in Rohrau, Austria (1732). He grew up quite poor and it was only when his work got the attention of some music-loving aristocrats in Vienna that he gained fame. Haydn was an important influence on the development of the Classical style and he helped to establish the forms for the string quartet and the symphony. Most of his music was written during the twenty-nine years he served as musical director to the Esterházy family.

It's the birthday of English poet Andrew Marvell, born at Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire, England (1621). His academic career was cut short when his father died, and Marvell was forced to leave school to become a tutor. Marvell's fame came three years after his death when his former housekeeper, who claimed to be his widow, found some of his writings, which were later published as Miscellaneous Poems by Andrew Marvell, Esq. His best known poem is "To His Coy Mistress" (1650):

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime...
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

It's the birthday of the English writer Edward Fitzgerald, born Edward Purcell in Bredfield, Suffolk, England (1809). He spent most of his life in his native Suffolk, living in seclusion except for occasional visits by literary friends like Thackeray, Carlyle, and Tennyson. His greatest work was published anonymously in 1859, and nearly forgotten until it attracted the attention of the poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Charles Algernon Swinburne. The book was an adaptation, from the original Persian, of The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
The Winter garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly -- and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

It is one of the most frequently quoted lyric poems, and many of its images, such as "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou," and "The moving finger writes," have become famous.

It's the birthday of the French scientist, mathematician, and philosopher René Descartes, born in La Haye, Touraine, France (1596). He has been called the father of both modern philosophy and modern mathematics. His writings on methodology and philosophy include Discourse on Method (1637) and Meditations (1641). His method focused on rationalistic thought, which is summed up with his famous phrase "Cogito, ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am" (or, "Thinking, I am"). He said: "If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."

It's the birthday of the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz, born in Mexico City (1914). His Selected Poems came out in English in 1979. His best-known nonfiction was an essay on Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), which became standard reading for students of Latin American history and literature. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

It's the birthday of the British novelist John Fowles, born in Leigh upon Sea, Essex, England (1926). His first novel was The Collector (1963), which was followed by The Magus (1966), chosen by the Modern Library as one of the one hundred best novels of the twentieth century. He's perhaps best known, though, for his third novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), the story of a Victorian love triangle. He grew up in an English suburbia and spent most of his time trying to escape it. "The rows of respectable little houses inhabited by respectable little people had an early depressive effect on me," he said.

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Marge Piercy, born in Detroit (1936). She grew up poor and white in a predominantly black section of Detroit. Her mother was a housewife with a tenth-grade education and her father a millwright who repaired and installed machinery. Her parents were not interested in education for girls and Piercy said they wanted her to be a "healthy flirtatious little girl, a sort of minor-league Shirley Temple." Instead she joined a girl's gang and turned to shoplifting. However, she had an avid interest in education, leading her to win a scholarship to the University of Michigan and to become the first in her family to attend college. She has won numerous awards for her writing like the Sheaffer Eaton-PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence in 1989 and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel in the United Kingdom in 1992 and 1993. Her writings include Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (1982), Braided Lives (1982), and He, She & It (1992), which is a futuristic story about a young woman who falls in love with a robot.


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