Apr. 27, 2003

Filling in the New Address Book

by B.J. Ward

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Poem: "Filling in the New Address Book," by B. J. Ward from Gravedigger's Birthday (North Atlanta Books).

Filling in the New Address Book

But rifling through the old one,
choosing whom to preserve
in your encyclopedia of associates,
whom to let become obsolete-
no room for them in your entire world.
You little god, you,
you puny pocket of omnipotence-
how you throw people off the side
of your dinghy-book,
a tiny captain thinking, "This is dead weight."
Old girlfriends-doubly gone now.
Old drinking buddies, married and laden
with responsibility, that grand soberer.
So you continue, you infinitesimal infinite one,
scratching out the names of the dead,
people you are coming from and never toward,
tearing down street signs, phone lines,
upheaving entire highways between you
as you leave them out,
their new and unfamiliar lives
not any less full than if you included them.
They are manning their own ships and,
sorry little god,
no room for you on their voyage either.
It's understood, no? You've been heroes together
in the past lives within this life-
Ulysseses now full of uselessnesses-
and why threaten any miraculous history,
any great testament, with knowledge
of how empty your current book of stories is?

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of American playwright August Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1945. He grew up in a poor African-American family in Pittsburgh, and dropped out of school when he was fifteen. He spent months working on a twenty-page paper on Napoleon for a history class. He turned it in, and it was so good that his teacher didn't believe he had written it. He left school and never came back. When he was twenty, his sister paid him twenty dollars to write two papers for her university English class. He used the money to buy a typewriter and said to himself, "Now I'm a writer. I'd better be; I just spent twenty dollars on this typewriter." He wrote poetry at first, moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then wrote plays which realistically depicted black urban speech and life. He wrote Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), which drew national attention. He wrote a series of ten plays, each focusing on a different decade of the black experience in America, and has gone on to write two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990).

It's the birthday of writer Ludwig Bemelmans, born in Merans, Tyrol, Austria in 1898. He was a rambunctious child who made a habit out of failing out of schools. While working for one of his uncle's hotels, he shot and almost killed a waiter. His uncle gave him a choice between reform school and America; he chose to emigrate and arrived in New York when he was sixteen years old. He worked at various hotels and restaurants and didn't start writing until he was 36, when a friend in publishing saw the childlike drawings that covered the walls of his apartments and encouraged him to write and illustrate a children's book. He's best known for his five "Madeline" books. Bemelmans wrote the familiar lines, "In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, and brushed their teeth, and went to bed. They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad, and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine, in two straight lines, in rain or shine...the smallest one was Madeline!"

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