May 30, 2003

The Woman in the Film

by Lesley Dauer

FRIDAY, 30 MAY 2003
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"The Woman in the Film," by Lesley Dauer from Fragile City (Bluestem Press).

The Woman in the Film

Because the film is running backwards,
a fireman carries a woman up his ladder
and places her gently in a burning building.
She curls softly between her bed sheets
just as a slight line of smoke
winds around the room. I feel I should say something
to the projectionist--I begin to think backwards
to my childhood, when I lit matches
and threw them over the fence.
A fireman shows me what might have burned
besides the toolshed. He motions his hand
towards my family, until my mother tells him to stop.
I head to the projectionist's booth.
On screen, the fire's receding
towards the back of the woman's house--
my mind rewinds further until I'm nothing
but a look Father gives to Mother over a candle
in some restaurant, and further still,
until my parents haven't met.
The projectionist doesn't hear me knocking.
The audience is laughing. I turn to find the fire's
gone out by itself, and the woman's own child
has just put a match back into its box.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of filmmaker Howard Hawks, born in Goshen, Indiana (1896). He directed films such as The Big Sleep (1946), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Red River (1948). He got into filmmaking as a prop boy, and then worked his way up to director. He is known for his conservative camera work: almost all the camera angles in his movies are eye-level, and he rarely moved the camera. But he was one of the first directors to use over-lapping dialogue in a movie. He was a tall man: a gambler, womanizer, and a drinking buddy of Hemingway and Faulkner. In his spare time, he liked to sail his sixty-five-foot racing sloop, called the Sea Hawk; he hunted with Gary Cooper; he rode motorcycles in the desert with Steve McQueen; and he helped design the racing car that won the Indianapolis 500 in 1936. He discovered the actress Lauren Bacall, who was a model and had appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. He said, "[she was] my kind of actress: slow, sardonic, insolent, leaning against something and sizing you up."

It's the birthday of actress and author Cornelia Otis Skinner, born in Chicago, Illinois (1901). Her parents were both actors, and she appeared on Broadway in a play with her father when she was twenty. She got other roles, but as a tall and awkward woman, she was often told by producers that she wasn't right for the part. So instead of looking for parts in other people's plays, she began to write her own monologues and plays, such as The Wives of Henry VIII (1937), in which she played all the wives. She went on to write several books of humorous essays about struggling, against impossible odds, to be feminine. She's best known for her book Our Hearts Were Young and Gay (1959), about a trip she took to Europe as young woman in the 1920's.

It's the birthday of poet Countee Cullen, who was probably born in Louisville, Kentucky (1903), though he claimed to have been born in New York City. He was an important poet and critic in the Harlem Renaissance. Most of the Harlem Renaissance writers moved to Harlem as adults, and Cullen was one of the few Harlem writers who grew up there. He drew attention for his collections of poetry like Color (1925) and The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929), and he said, "If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be a poet and not a negro poet." In the 1920's and 30's he was not only one of the most popular Harlem poets, but one of the most popular poets in America.

It was on this day in 1431 that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, France. She was a peasant girl, born during the Hundred Years War, one of the worst wars in French history. During the Hundred Years War the population of France was cut in half. Joan was born into the middle of the war, and when she was thirteen, she started hearing heavenly voices in her garden. The voices told her to go to the city of Orleans, which was under siege, defeat the English, and give the disputed crown of France to the dauphin Charles. So that's what she did. Somehow, this teenage peasant girl persuaded the authorities to give her an army, and a suit of specially made armor, and she marched to Orleans and led the battle, carrying a banner with Jesus' name on it. She was shot in the chest with an arrow, but she continued fighting, and the English retreated from Orleans. She continued leading battles and her people came to believe she was an angel. After failing to take Paris, Joan was captured and sold to the English for ten thousand pounds, and they put her on trial for heresy. She was eighteen years old. On May 30, she was led barefoot to the marketplace to be burned alive. Twenty years later, she was pardoned by the king whom she helped to crown, and in 1920 she was canonized as a saint.

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