Apr. 22, 2003


by Louise Gluck

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Poem: "Widows," by Louise Gluck from Ararat (Ecco Press).


My mother's playing cards with my aunt,
Spite and Malice, the family pastime, the game
my grandmother taught all her daughters.

Midsummer: too hot to go out.
Today, my aunt's ahead; she's getting the good cards.
My mother's dragging, having trouble with her concentration.
She can't get used to her own bed this summer.
She had no trouble last summer,
getting used to the floor. She learned to sleep there
to be near my father.
He was dying; he got a special bed.

My aunt doesn't give an inch, doesn't make
allowance for my mother's weariness.
It's how they were raised: you show respect by fighting.
To let up insults the opponent.

Each player has one pile to the left, five cards in the hand.
It's good to stay inside on days like this,
to stay where it's cool.
And this is better than other games, better than solitaire.

My grandmother thought ahead; she prepared her daughters.
They have cards; they have each other.
They don't need any more companionship.

All afternoon the game goes on but the sun doesn't move.
It just keeps beating down, turning the grass yellow.
That's how it must seem to my mother.
And then, suddenly, something is over.

My aunt's been at it longer; maybe that's why she's playing better.
Her cards evaporate: that's what you want, that's the object: in the end,
the one who has nothing wins.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Louise Gluck, born in New York City in 1943. She's the author of many collections of poetry, including The Seven Ages (2001), The Wild Iris (1992), and Firstborn (1968).

It's the birthday of Norwegian-American novelist O(le) E(dvart) Rolvaag, born in Helgeland, Norway in 1876. He grew up on Donna Island, a tiny treeless island just south of the Arctic Circle. When he was fifteen he dropped out of school and began to go on daylong fishing expeditions. Five years later, he quit his life as a fisherman and sailed to the United States. He landed in New York with almost no money and no prospects, and ended up walking the entire night to find a farm where the family could speak Norwegian. Eventually, he made his way to South Dakota, where he worked on his uncle's farm for three years. He got a degree from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and went on to write novels chronicling the experiences of Norwegian immigrants in the American midwest, including his most famous book, Giants in the Earth (1927).

It's the birthday of the Henry Fielding, born in Sharpham Park, Somerset, England in 1707. As a young man he went to London and made a living writing satirical and farcical plays, most famously The Tragedy of Tom Thumb (1730), which was said to have made Jonathan Swift laugh for the second time in his life. But his dramatic career was cut short in 1737 when the prime minister banned most satire with the Theatrical Licensing Act, mainly in response to Fielding's plays. He became a lawyer and in 1742 wrote his first novel Joseph Andrews (1742). Seven years later he came out with his most celebrated work, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), which tells the life story of a man who as a baby was left on the bed of an aristocrat. He wrote, "What is commonly called love is merely the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh."

It's the birthday of French writer Madame de Stael, born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris in 1766. She wrote essays on literature during the time of the French revolution, and later turned to novels, including Delphine (1802) and Corinne (1807). Napoleon exiled her from France because he was so disgusted with her high praise of German culture in her study on German Romanticism published in 1810. She said, "The more I see of men the more I like dogs." And, "I am glad I am not a man, for if I were I should be obliged to marry a woman."

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