Sep. 22, 2003

A Morris Dance

by Mary Jo Salter

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Poem: "A Morris Dance," by Mary Jo Salter, from Open Shutters (Knopf).

A Morris Dance

Across the Common, on a lovely May
day in New England, I see and hear
the Middle Ages drawing near,
bells tinkling, pennants bright and gay—
    a parade of Morris dancers.

One plucks a lute. One twirls a cape.
Up close, a lifted pinafore
exposes cellulite, and more.
O why aren't they in better shape,
    the middle-aged Morris dancers?

Already it's not hard to guess
their treasurer—her; their president—him;
the Wednesday night meetings at the gym.
They ought to practice more, or less,
    the middle-aged Morris dancers.

Short-winded troubadours and pages,
milkmaids with osteoporosis—
what really makes me so morose is
how they can't admit their ages,
    the middle-aged Morris dancers.

Watching them gamboling and tripping
on Maypole ribbons like leashed dogs,
then landing, thunderously, on clogs,
I have to say I feel like skipping
    the middle-aged Morris dancers.

Yet bunions and receding gums
have humbled me; I know my station
as a member of their generation.
Maybe they'd let me play the drums,
    the middle-aged Morris dancers.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1776, patriot Nathan Hale was executed for espionage. At 11:00 a.m., he stood on the gallows and uttered the most famous last words in American history: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Hale graduated with honors from Yale, taught high school, and then joined the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War. The British were building up their forces on Long Island, and at the battle of Harlem Heights, George Washington asked for a volunteer to go behind enemy lines as a spy. Hale was the only soldier who stepped forward. He disguised himself as a Dutch schoolmaster. For over a week he gathered information on the position of British troops, but while he was trying to return to the American side he was captured with all of his maps and notes. British General William Howe ordered Hale to be hanged the day after his capture. Hale was twenty-one years old.

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Fay Weldon, born Franklin Birkinshaw in Worcestershire, England (1931). She's the author of over three dozen books; she writes about complicated women who struggle against dull, manipulative men. Her novels include Praxis (1978); The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983); and Puffball (1980), which mixes gynecology and witchcraft. Her autobiography, Auto da Fay, was published this year. In 2001, Weldon caused a literary controversy when she became the first writer to be paid for a product placement in a novel. The chic Italian jewelry company Bulgari paid her an undisclosed sum to mention their brand 12 times. Weldon actually mentioned the name fifteen times and even put it in her title: The Bulgari Connection (2001). It's about a divorcee named Grace Salt who tries to kill her millionaire husband's TV-host mistress, gets released from prison, and takes up with a young artist as she moves through high-class parties and fancy London hotels. She said, "You can't be precious about writing ... Style is the way you say things in order to get home as quickly as possible."

It's the birthday of the English scientist Michael Faraday, born in Newington, Surrey, England (1791). In 1831 he found that when he moved a magnet through a coil of wire, an electric current was produced. The process was called electromagnetic induction, and Faraday's discovery led to the electric generator, the heart of the modern power plant. Later, another one of his discoveries helped lead to the invention of the radio.

It's the birthday of director, screenwriter, and actor Erich von Stroheim, born in Vienna, Austria (1885). He liked to make up stories about his past. He said he was descended from Viennese nobility, and that he had been an officer in the Austrian army, but in fact he was the son of a modest Jewish hat maker. He came to the United States in 1909. During World War I he played German officers in anti-German propaganda films, at a time when America was full of anti-German sentiment. By 1917 Stroheim was out of work and blacklisted, a victim of the simple-mindedness his own films had helped to fuel. People questioned his "Americanism." While he was living in a run-down rooming house on the west side of New York City, he came across a copy of the novel McTeague (1899), by Frank Norris, that a previous tenant had left behind. McTeague is a dentist who loses his job, becomes a drunk, murders his wife and his rival, and is handcuffed to the rival's corpse. In 1924, Stroheim made his masterpiece, Greed, based on McTeague. Stroheim's version was nine hours long, but his superiors cut it to 140 minutes without Stroheim's approval or input. Years later, when Stroheim was showed the edited version, he wept as he watched it. He said: "This was like an exhumation for me. In a tiny coffin I found a lot of dust, a terrible smell, a little backbone and a shoulder bone." Still, it is considered one of the greatest movies ever made.

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




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