Apr. 26, 2003

Braided Rugs

by Nancy Frederiksen

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Braided Rugs," by Nancy Frederiksen from Coming up for Air (Paper Jack Creek Press).

Braided Rugs

She saved wool rags.
Kept them in brown paper bags
in the upstairs attic. When
the walls of the bags tore
and remnants spilled onto
slats of the grey painted floor
she brought them

cut them into inch-and-a-half
wide strips, enlisted our help
(every girl ought to know
how to sew)
braided the strips
then sewed the braids
by hand.

Years later
one braided rug remains.
Woven and twisted
wool suit pants
flannel pajamas
red hunting shirts
sewn together in
soft and scratchy mixtures

remnants of generations
millions of
invisible threads.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1822. He is known as the founder of American landscape architecture and designed New York's Central Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace, and Montreal's Mont Royal Park. He also wrote books based on his travels in Europe and the southern United States, including A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856) and The Cotton Kingdom (1861), and was one of the era's most outspoken opponents of slavery. Olmsted was intent on pursuing a literary career but the publishing house he had joined folded. So he embarked on a new career as superintendent of New York City's budding Central Park. He teamed up with architect Calvert Vaux and the two won the design competition for the park. They called it the Greensward Plan and wanted it to give New Yorkers the chance to experience a day in the country without leaving the city. They wrote, "It shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is." To transform the 750-acre site into a pastoral setting, they shifted almost 5 million cubic yards of dirt, blasted rock with 260 tons of gunpowder, and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. The project was complete in 1864.

It's the birthday of blues singer Gertrude Pridgett, better known as Ma Rainey, born in Columbus, Georgia in 1886. She helped popularize the blues among a wide, racially mixed audience in the U.S. In 1904, she married the traveling entertainer Will "Pa" Rainey, and the couple toured together as "Ma and Pa Rainey and Assassinators of the Blues." Ma Rainey dressed in ostentatious outfits covered with sequins and diamonds, and always wore her trademark necklace made of gold coins. She said, "My audience wants to see me beautifully gowned, and I have spared no expense or pains, for I feel that the best is none too good for the public that pays to hear a singer." The popularity of women blues singers declined dramatically in the 1930s, and Ma Rainey returned to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia where she managed two theaters and became active in the local Baptist church. When she died from heart disease in 1939, the obituary in the local paper listed her profession as "housekeeper."

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos, born in Mount Shasta, California in 1893. Her father managed a local theater and Loos began acting there as a child. She later turned to writing, and wrote the script for D.W. Griffith's film The New York Hat (1912). She met blonde actress Mae Clarke and was inspired to write her most celebrated novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926). The book spawned a 1928 silent film, a 1949 Broadway musical, and a 1952 adaptation of the musical starring Marilyn Monroe. Late in her career, Loos translated much of Colette's work from the French, including Gigi in 1951. She said, "I've had my best times when trailing a Mainbocher evening gown across a sawdust floor. I've always loved high style in low company."

It's the birthday of novelist Bernard Malamud, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1914. He's the author of The Natural (1952), The Assistant (1957), and The Fixer (1966), among many other books, and has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. When he was 25 years old and fresh from graduate school, he got a job working as a clerk for the United States Census Bureau. The job was unsupervised and required little actual work, so he spent most of his day crouched over his desk writing short stories on company time. He said, "The idea is to get the pencil moving quickly. Once you've got some words looking back at you, you can take two or three -- or throw them away and look for others."

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