Dec. 12, 2003

Old Celery

by Mark Yakich

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Poem: "Old Celery," by Mark Yakich, from Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (forthcoming from Penguin).

Old Celery

At the corner greengrocer
I'd passed you many times before,
always under the bright lights,
water beading up on your tough skin.

I picked up a tomato,
a pair of kohlrabi,
a handful of coriander;
I had money this time.

As I counted my change,
a penny dropped down under your stand.
On the way up, you,
old celery, caught my eye.

You'd been moved to a darker corner
of the produce. I now felt
guilt; I had missed
you in your prime.

I set down the other vegetables,
took you, limp and barely
green, and left a hollow yellow
in the bed of shaved ice.

When I held you up
to get a fair look, there was
not a silence in the world
like the silence between us.

Like so many things I've not wanted
to see until they persisted
in seeing me, I took you
as if now I had a choice.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, born in Rouen, France (1821). He's best known for the novel Madame Bovary (1857). As a young man, he rebelled against his middle class family, dropped out of school, and studied literature on his own. Eventually, his father convinced him to go to law school, but he was distracted by writing projects that he could never seem to finish. In 1844 he had a nervous attack. He dropped out of law school, his father bought him a house on the River Seine, and Flaubert devoted the rest of his life to writing. After his father died, he moved back in with his mother, where he lived until he was 50 years old. He lived by his own maxim, "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

He was a perfectionist, and spent hours at his writing desk every day. It took him about five years to write Madame Bovary, which was published in 1857. One time, when he was writing a scene in the novel, he said his "nerves were so on edge that my mother, who came into my room at ten o'clock to say goodnight, made me give an appalling cry of terror. . . . For a good while my heart was racing because of it all and I needed about a quarter of an hour to recover. That is how absorbed I am when I'm working." Madame Bovary is about the adulterous affair of a provincial housewife. Critics complained about its amoral depiction of sin, and Flaubert had to go to court to allow the book to remain in print.

Most of Flaubert's novels were neither critical nor popular successes. A Sentimental Education (1869) sold fewer than 3,000 copies in the first four years after it was published. But he became hugely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially among European writers like James Joyce, who admired Flaubert's style of realism in which the writer leaves no trace of himself in his work.

Flaubert said, "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

It was on this day in 1850 that the book that's considered by many historians to be the first bestseller was published, The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. It's a domestic epic about a ten-year-old girl who is sent out into the world by her dying mother and neglectful father. She endures many hardships, but stays faithful to her mother's lessons of Christian humility. The novel went through 14 editions in two years. No other novel had sold so well, both in England and America. It's rarely read today.

It's the birthday of Ol' Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915). He recorded dozens of hits, including "I Get a Kick out of You," "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "Night and Day." Sinatra grew up in Hoboken, the son of Italian immigrants. He knew early on that he wanted to be a singer, and his mother supported his decision to drop out of high school to sing in nightclubs. In 1935, he formed a group called the Three Flashes with three other young men from Hoboken. After a while, he decided his best chance to make it big was to sing alone, so he quit the group and went back to solo nightclub gigs. In 1939, a trumpet player named Harry James heard Sinatra singing on a local radio station, and James signed him for $75 a week. Sinatra made his first recording the next month. James said, "He's never had a hit record, and he looks like a wet rag, but he says he's the greatest."

It's the birthday of British playwright John Osborne, born in London (1929). He grew up in a working class family, and his father died when he was young. When he was 16, he quit school and began acting with traveling companies. He started writing plays when he was 19, and his first play was produced when he was 25. Two years later, he came out with his most famous play, Look Back in Anger (1956). It's a bleak play about a 25-year-old man named Jimmy Porter who lives in a tiny apartment with his wife and business partner. Jimmy owns a sweets shop, but he has no real hope for the future, and he becomes involved in a love triangle with his wife's friend. The play was revolutionary in British theater. Before Look Back in Anger, most plays in England were classics, melodramas, or genteel, drawing-room comedies. They usually had a likeable main character for audiences to identify with. Osborne changed all that. The term "angry young man" was coined to label the discontented British youth of the 1950s, and Osborne inspired a generation of writers, artists, and musicians. He wrote, "I do not like the kind of society in which I find myself. I like it less and less. I love the theatre more and more because I know that it is what I always dreamed it might be: a weapon."

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