Apr. 15, 2003

In the Privacy of the Home

by Mark Stand

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Poem: "In the Privacy of the Home," by Mark Strand from Sleeping With One Eye Open (Stone Wall Press).

In the Privacy of the Home

You want to get a good look at yourself. You stand before a mirror, you take off your
jacket, unbutton your shirt, open your belt, unzip your fly. The outer clothing falls from
you. You take off your shoes and socks, baring your feet. You remove your underwear.
At a loss, you examine the mirror. There you are, you are not there.

Literary Notes:

Today is Tax Day. Congress ratified the sixteenth amendment in 1913, giving the power of taxation to the government, and ever since then taxes have been due on the fifteenth day of April. Mark Twain said, "What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin." In Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), Scarlett O'Hara says, "Death and taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them!" Russian author Anton Chekhov wrote, "Death can only be profitable: there's no need to eat, drink, pay taxes, offend people, and since a person lies in a grave for hundreds or thousands of years, if you count it up the profit turns out to be enormous." It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote, in 1789, "Our Constitution is in actual operation; everything appears to promise that it will last; but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."

On this day in 1802, William Wordsworth took the walk with his sister Dorothy by Ullswater Lake in England that inspired his poem "Daffodils" (1804). Dorothy described the scene in her diary: "The wind seized our breath, the Lake was rough...When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side...as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road." Two years later, Wordsworth wrote his famous poem:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd, --
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
"They stood up proud and tall and warm,
Just like my federal income tax form."

It's the birthday of novelist, short story writer, and critic Henry James, born in New York City (1843). He was an American who wanted to be British. He was from a wealthy family, and when he was twelve they moved to Europe for several years. He once said to two English friends, "However British you may be, I am more British still." He's considered one of the greatest American writers of his generation, master of the "international novel," but he had an ambivalent attitude toward America throughout his life. He liked what he called the "denser, richer, warmer European spectacle" with its "complexity of manners and types." He said, to his niece, "I hate American simplicity." In 1875 he moved to Paris, where he met important novelists of the day, including Zola, Flaubert, and Turgenev. His early novels, including The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), are about Americans living and traveling abroad. To his sister-in-law, James wrote, "Dearest Alice, I could come back to America (could be carried on a stretcher) to die -- but never, never to live." He lived the last two decades of his life in England. He was angry when the United States didn't enter World War I at its start, and so he became a British citizen in 1915. It cost him his reputation in America; he remained unread and out-of-print for years after he died in 1916, until the 30's, when his reputation was resurrected.

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