May 12, 2003

The Dancing

by Gerald Stern

MONDAY, 12 MAY 2003
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Poem: "The Dancing," by Gerald Stern from Paradise Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press).

The Dancing

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never see a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel's "Bolero" the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop--in 1945--
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing--in Poland and Germany--
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of English detective writer Leslie Charteris, born in Singapore in 1907. He's famous for creating the Saint, a sharply-dressed hero who hunted down bad guys and used the names of different saints as pseudonyms. The Saint was introduced in the novel Enter the Saint (1930), and his adventures were portrayed in several movies and a television series starring Roger Moore in the 1960s. Charteris introduced his character, "I am the Saint -- you may have heard of me. Just a twentieth-century privateer. In my small way I try to put right a few of the things that are wrong with this cock-eyed world, and clean up some of the excrescences I come across."

It's the birthday of American novelist and poet Rosellen Brown, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1939. Her novels include Tender Mercies (1978), Before and After (1992), and her latest, Half a Heart (2000), which tells the story of a white, Jewish woman who is reunited with the biracial daughter she abandoned during the sixties. She said, "I still write for the same reason I wrote when I was nine years old: to speak more perfectly than I really can, to a listener more perfect than any I know."

It's the birthday of Canadian writer of animal stories Farley Mowat, born in Belleville, Ontario in 1921. He was obsessed with animals as a child, and became an avid bird-watcher by the time he was fifteen years old. One evening, his parents were hosting a formal dinner party at their house when young Farley rushed into the room with a dead, dissected woodpecker on a plate, excited about an anatomical discovery he had made. One of the guests happened to work at the local newspaper and asked Farley if he would write a weekly column about birds in the paper's supplement for young readers. It was the beginning of his career as a writer.

It's the birthday of English nonsense poet Edward Lear, born in London in 1812. His first book of poems was called A Book of Nonsense (1846), and was filled with limericks and other snappy, silly poems. He was better known in his day for his landscape paintings and nature drawings than his poetry, and worked for the London Zoological Society illustrating birds. He wrote:

There was an Old Man who supposed,
That the street door was partially closed;
But some very large rats, ate his coats and his hats,
While that futile old gentleman dozed.

It's the birthday of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, born in London in 1828 to Italian exiles. He and his sister, poet Christina Rossetti, grew up drawing, painting, and writing poetry in both English and Italian. In 1851, he became engaged to Lizzie Siddal, but they weren't married until 1860. Lizzie died just two years after she and Rossetti were married, probably by suicide. Rossetti placed all of his unpublished poems in her coffin, only to dig them up a few years later so he could publish them.

It's the birthday of philosophical writer and speaker Jiddu Krishnamurti, born in Mandanapalle, South India in 1895. He said, "Your judgment, your mind, your affection, your life are being perverted by things which have no value, and herein lies sorrow."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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