Feb. 17, 2004

Waving Good-Bye

by Gerald Stern

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Poem: "Waving Good-Bye," by Gerald Stern, from This Time: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton).

Waving Good-Bye

I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the father of modern Persian fiction, Sadeq Hidayat, born in what is now Tehran, Iran (1903). Before he came along, poetry in Persia was given a much higher status than prose, but he helped to change that with his first two short story collections, Three Drops of Blood (1932) and Buried Alive (1930). His masterpiece was the novel The Blind Owl (1936), about a depressed Persian man who turns to opium and alcohol to escape from his misery.

It's the birthday of spy novelist Elleston Trevor, born Trevor Dudley-Smith in Bromley, Kent, England (1920). He's the author of a popular series of novels starring the secret agent Quiller, who works for a branch of the British government so secret that it is not officially acknowledged to exist. He started writing while he was in the British Air Force during World War II. He wrote a novel every two weeks, using different pseudonyms. He once said that the only reason that he was able to publish so many novels was that there was a paper shortage during World War II, and his publisher was one of the in England that had a lot of paper in its warehouse.

It's the birthday of novelist Chaim Potok, born in the Bronx, New York (1929). He's the author of several novels about Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx, including The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969) and The Book of Lights (1981).

He decided to become a writer after reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1945). He was fourteen years old, and all he had read were magazines and pulp fiction. He wanted to read a serious adult book, and he chose Brideshead Revisited at random from the public library. He later said about reading it, "I found myself inside a world the merest existence of which I had known nothing about. I lived more deeply inside the world in that book than I lived inside my own world."

He worked for two years as a chaplain for the United States Army in Korea, and it was there that he wrote his first novel. It wasn't published, but it was the basis for his first major success, The Chosen (1967), about two Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1940s. He went on to write many more novels, as well as a book of history called Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (1978).

It's the birthday of economist Thomas Robert Malthus, born in Surrey, England (1766). In 1798 he published a pamphlet called An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that the human population of the earth was growing at a faster rate than the food supply, and that war, disease and famine were necessary in order to prevent overpopulation.

People are still debating whether Malthus was right about overpopulation. The world's growth rate has been declining for the past 40 years. Technological advances in agriculture have made it possible to get more food out of the same amount of land; and birth control has reduced the birth rates in many countries. On the other hand, many developing countries are growing by more than 80 million people a year, and are full of disease and starvation.

It's the birthday of folk poet Andrew "Banjo" Paterson, born in Narrambla, New South Wales, Australia (1864). He's credited with writing the lyrics to the ballad "Waltzing Matilda," sometimes called Australia's unofficial national anthem. He was raised on a sheep farm in the bush country of New South Wales, and he came to love the rugged land and people. He wrote his first poems for a Sydney magazine under the name "Banjo", which he took from a racing horse. He wrote about cowboys, drovers and other outdoorsmen, and he soon developed a huge following. His first collection, The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses (1895), sold out a week after it was published. It went through four editions in six months, and it's still one of the best-selling books of Australian poetry ever published.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Ruth Rendell, born in London (1930). She's best known for her mystery novels featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. In her first few novels, Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was fat, ugly and crude; but over the years he's become thinner, smarter and nicer. Rendell said, "At first I never saw him as a serious character, but if I was going to have to live with him, I had to make him tolerable." Instead of being solitary and depressed like most detectives in mystery novels, Reginald Wexford is happily married with two children.

It's the birthday of writer Margaret Truman, born in Independence, Missouri (1924). She's the daughter of President Harry S Truman, born while he was a county judge. She was twenty-one years old when her father became president. Her first books were biographies of each of her parents, as well as an autobiography called Souvenir (1956). She didn't start writing novels until she was in her fifties. She was working on a history of U.S. presidents' children when she had an idea for a mystery novel set in the White House. Murder in the White House was published in 1980, and she's gone on to write many more mystery novels set in Washington D.C., including Murder in the Supreme Court (1982) and Murder in the Smithsonian (1983).

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