Apr. 2, 2003

Unknown Neighbor

by Kate Light

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Poem: "Unknown Neighbor," by Kate Light from Open Slowly (Zoo Press).

Unknown Neighbor

Hi, she says, leaning on the railing.
What are you doing, homework?
Well, sort of, I say. I'm waiting for my friend.
I'm waiting for my heart, she says.
(Me too, I think; my friend.)
Out on a long walk? I ask.
Well, she says, I have a girl friend, I've known
her 50 years; once in a while we get together
for dinner. She comes around here to Chelsea, she says.
Use to be I just had arthritis and rheumatism, now -- it's a pain
in the neck -- I got a convulsive heart. I come from
Twenty-second and Eighth, where I'm helping
my brother. For me that's a long walk.
So I wait.
I used to climb mountains! she says.
I was young like you, she says.
But I got no squawk -- I've done a lot --
and maybe more to do, she says;
who knows? And, waving, off she goes.


Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the Italian writer Giovanni Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt, born in Venice (1725). A handsome and charismatic boy, he was born to parents who were both actors. He was studying to become a priest when he was caught drinking and conducting love affairs, for which he was expelled. A life of adventure took him all over Europe. In Paris, his great personal charm helped him to win important friends, and he became director of the lottery, which helped make him wealthy. While in Paris, Louis XV asked him to do some spy work, which he agreed to do, but later while he was in London, he tried to sell the secret of a red cotton dye to his own country. In 1755 he was arrested in Venice and denounced as a magician, and his books and writings were confiscated. He was sentenced to five years in the dungeons under the roof of the Doge's Palace, which were extremely hot because they were made out of lead. For several months, he secretly worked on a tunnel with an iron rod that he had found in the prison yard. His hopes were shattered when he was forced to move to another cell. Realizing that the guards were carefully watching him, Casanova gave his iron tool to the prisoner in the next cell, who was a monk, and asked him to dig one tunnel joining their cells and another between the monk's cell and the outside. They both escaped, and when Casanova returned to Paris, the news of his escape made him into a celebrity. In 1785 Casanova retired to a castle in Bohemia and became a librarian. While there, he set out to write his memoirs. He said it was "the sole remedy" he possessed "to avoid going mad or dying of sorrow." At his death, he left four thousand pages of manuscript behind, some of which was later published under the title The History of My Life. Casanova wrote, "I saw that everything in the world that is famous and beautiful, if we rely on the descriptions and drawings of writers and artists, always loses when we go to see it and examine it up close."

It's the birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, born in Denmark (1805). He grew up in the slums of Odense where his father was a poor shoemaker and his mother was an uneducated washerwoman. As a child he was very emotional and suffered from all kinds of fears and humiliations because he was tall and had effeminate interests. In 1816 his father died and Andersen was forced to go to work. He worked for a short time as an apprentice to a weaver and tailor. He also worked at a tobacco factory. One day, some of the factory workers decided to trap him and pull down his pants because they suspected that he was a girl. Andersen received little education, but his father loved literature, and would read from books like the Bible and Arabian Nights. His father also enjoyed the theater, and would take young Hans to see plays, which inspired Andersen's dreams of becoming an actor or singer. However, his parents discouraged him from a career in acting or singing and Andersen transformed his interest in performing into storytelling, often telling fairy tales to other children with his home-made puppet theater. Andersen is best known for his Fairy Tales and Stories (written between 1835 and 1872). He returned to the stories that he had heard as a child, and eventually he created his own tales. The third volume of his tales (1837) includes "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes." His other fairy tales include "Little Ugly Duckling," "The Princess and the Pea," "The Snow Queen," and "The Steadfast Tin Soldier."

It's the birthday of the French writer and critic Émile Zola, born in Paris (1840). His works include a series of 20 books, including Germinal, known as the Rougon-Macquart Novels, in which he defined men and women as products of heredity and environment, portraying them as victims of their own passions and circumstances of birth.


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