Nov. 16, 2003

The Age of Reason

by Mary Jo Salter

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Poem: "The Age of Reason," by Mary Jo Salter, from Sunday Skaters (Alfred A. Knopf).

The Age of Reason

"When can we have cake?" she wants to know.
And patiently we explain: when dinner's finished.
Someone wants seconds; and wouldn't she like to try,
while she's waiting, a healthful lettuce leaf?
    The birthday girl can't hide her grief—

worse, everybody laughs. That makes her sink
two rabbity, gapped teeth, acquired this year,
into a quivering lip, which puts an end
to tears but not the tedium she'll take
    in life before she's given cake:

"When I turned seven, now," her grandpa says,
"the priest told me I'd reached the age of reason.
That means you're old enough to tell what's right
from wrong. Make decisions on your own."
    Her big eyes brighten. "So you mean

I can decide to open presents first?"
Laughter again (she joins it) as the reward
of devil's food is brought in on a tray.
"You know why we were taught that?" asks my father.
    "No." I light a candle, then another

in a chain. "—So we wouldn't burn in Hell."
A balloon pops in the other room; distracted,
she innocently misses talk of nuns'
severities I never knew at seven.
    By then, we were Unitarian

and marched off weekly, dutifully, to hear
nothing in particular. "Ready!"
I call, and we huddle close to sing
something akin, you'd have to say, to prayer.
    Good God, her hair—

one beribboned pigtail has swung low
as she leans to trade the year in for a wish;
before she blows it out, the camera's flash
captures a mother's hand, all hope, no blame,
    saving her from the flame.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Chinua Achebe, born in Ogidi, Nigeria (1930). He grew up in a mostly traditional village in Nigeria, though his parents were evangelical Protestants. He was encouraged to learn about the native Ibo culture by visiting local festivals and religious ceremonies. He began to read English books about Nigerian culture and people, and saw that to many people in Europe he was just "one of those savages, dancing around in the twilight of the jungles." After going to college and working for a while with the BBC, Achebe began to write. His first and most famous book was Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. It's about traditional Ibo village life and how it changes after the arrival of European colonizers. The book is written in English, but weaves in traditional idioms and proverbs. Achebe said "proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." Things Fall Apart is one of the most important works of a nationalist revival in Nigeria. It has become an international success, selling eight million copies in the first 41 years it was published.

In Anthills of the Savannah (1987), Achebe wrote:

. . . [It is] the story that
can continue beyond the war and the
warrior. It is the story that outlives the
sound of war-drums and the exploits of
brave fighters. . . . The story is our escort;
without it, we are blind. Does the blind
man own his escort? No, neither do we
the story; rather it is the story that
owns us and directs us.

It's the birthday of the blues composer W.C. Handy, born in Florence, Alabama (1873). His father and grandfather were Methodist ministers, and he grew up in a cabin on the Tennessee River. He showed musical promise very early. As a child, he could identify the notes and intervals of birdsongs and ferry whistles he heard from the river. His family expected him to become a minister. When his father discovered he'd bought a guitar, he took it from Handy, and exchanged it for a dictionary. Handy left home and went on the road with a number of bands before ending up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he set up his headquarters on Beale Street. He studied popular music and became the first person to write down the music that would become known as "the blues." His first song, "Memphis Blues," was written for E.H. Crump, who was running for Mayor of Memphis. Later, he wrote his most famous song, "St. Louis Blues." Handy was not the first person to play the blues, but he was the first person to write sheet music for it and make it accessible for mass consumption. For this he was called "The Father of the Blues." He compiled blues music and published a book called Blues: An Anthology in 1926. He also wrote Negro Authors And Composers of the United States (1935).

It's the birthday of playwright George S. Kaufman, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1889). He collaborated on more than 40 plays, with such writers as Marc Connelly (Merton of the Movies, 1922), Ring Lardner (June Moon, 1929), Edna Ferber (Dinner at Eight, 1932), and Morrie Ryskind (Of Thee I Sing, 1931). Kaufman said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."

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