May 1, 2003

Postcard from Harmony Parking Lot

by Wyn Cooper

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Postcard from Harmony Parking Lot," by Wyn Cooper from Secret Address (Chapiteau Press).

Postcard from Harmony Parking Lot

The teens have gathered, because they are teens.
They wear brown shirts faded to beige, black
boots, low-slung jeans. The way they stand
is called jaunty. Cigarettes burn through
their words, smoke blows through their hair,
and the way they stare at passersby blends
reptile with bird, spleen with wonder,
your past with their present to you.

Literary Notes:

Today is the anniversary of the day in 1931 when the Empire State Building opened to the public. In Washington, D.C., President Herbert Hoover took a break from a cabinet meeting to flick a switch and, like a lit Christmas tree, the lights went on in the building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York City. It was built remarkably fast, in just over a year. At 102 stories, it was the tallest building in the world until 1974. Passers-by often stood in crowds around the construction site, watching the steelworkers, who looked like trapeze artists, they were so high above the city.

It's the birthday of Joseph Heller, born in Brooklyn, New York (1923). He grew up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He flew bomber missions during World War II, and most of his targets were bridges, but he once had to bomb a village, and that made him uncomfortable. He always felt a little guilty in between missions, sitting around while his friends were out risking their lives, but one of his tent mates had a typewriter, so he started writing stories to pass the time. About ten years after the war he began to write Catch 22 (1961). The novel is about a World War II bomber pilot named Yossarian, and it begins with him in the military hospital. Yossarian tries to get himself declared insane so he can stop flying bombing missions. Unfortunately, there is a regulation called Catch-22, stating that if you want out of combat duty you aren't crazy. Heller wrote, "[A pilot] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to." Catch 22 got mixed reviews, but it became a great favorite during the 1960's and is now considered one of the most important novels of the 20th Century. The phrase "Catch-22," is now a part of the American lexicon, defined by one edition of the Oxford English Dictionary as "a condition or consequence that precludes success, a dilemma where the victim cannot win."

It's the birthday of poet and literary critic Sterling Allen Brown, born in Washington, D.C. (1901). One of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, he wrote books analyzing African American culture like The Negro in American Fiction (1937).

It's the birthday of Italian-American writer Niccolo Tucci, born in Lugano, Switzerland (1908). He worked during World War II writing propaganda for Mussolini, and he later described the job as, "Wasting the best years of my life serving and praising one of the greatest imbeciles and criminals of the century." After the war, he came to the United States and began publishing fiction in the New Yorker magazine. He is the author of the novel Unfinished Funeral (1964) and the collection of stories The Rain Came Last (1990).

It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer Bobbie Ann Mason, born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She is the author of several books of fiction about her native western Kentucky, including Love Life: Stories (1989) and the novel Feather Crowns (1993).

It's the birthday of English essayist, poet and dramatist Joseph Addison, born in Milston, England (1672). He and a man named Richard Steele published a daily periodical called the The Spectator, to which they both contributed essays. He is known for introducing ordinary, easy-to-understand language into the English essay.

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, born in Alvarado, Texas (1924). He co-wrote the screenplays for the films Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Easy Rider (1969). While living in Paris after serving in World War II, he co-wrote the novel Candy (1958), an erotic retelling of Voltaire's Candide, about a young, upstanding, Christian woman who can't seem to resist the advances of any man she bumps into. It was one of the only novels written in English ever banned in France.

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