Apr. 4, 2004

Still Life

by Steve Kowit

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Poem: "Still Life," by Steve Kowit, from The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press).

Still Life

For an hour he's been pacing back & forth
between the double-latched front door
& living room,
insisting that he has to leave,
that Gertie's waiting downstairs with the car.
Patiently, my mother tries to coax
him back into his chair--then suddenly
explodes: Mickey, please,
you're driving me insane.
Take your jacket off & just sit down!
Your sister has been dead for thirty years. . . .
& then starts sobbing
Contrite, all that belligerence
knocked out of him, my dutiful
& gentle father--old,
confused--sits beside her on the couch
& takes her hand.
All right, he says, I won't go anywhere. . . .
So there they sit--together, holding hands.
It's night. Beyond the spathiphyllum
at the window--white
sail with its single flower
downtown Philly's skyline
etched in light,
somewhere near the end of the millennium.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1968, the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a rifleman while standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to Tennessee to support a strike by the city's sanitation workers. The night before he died, he gave a speech at the Memphis Temple Church in which he said, "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

It's the birthday of novelist Jerome Weidman, born in New York City (1913). He's best known for his first novel I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1937), about the rise of a crooked New York City garment merchant named Harry Bogen. He wrote it after working as a clerk in an accounting office during the Great Depression, where he watched businessmen struggling to survive by double-crossing and cheating whenever they could.

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Marguerite Duras, born in a small village near Saigon in what was then French Indochina (1914). After her father died of dysentery, her mother struggled to support the family, and she was so distracted that she forgot to enroll her children in school. Duras said, "For two years I ran wild; it was probably the time in my life I came closest to complete happiness. At eight, I still couldn't read or write." Her mother bought some land, hoping to farm it, but it turned out to be worthless. Still, the family was able to scrape enough money together to send Duras to school in Saigon.

While Duras was going to high school in Saigon, she began an affair with an older, wealthy Chinese man, which ended when she graduated from high school and went to college in France. She kept the affair secret for the next fifty years, while writing short, experimental novels such as The Sea Wall (1953) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1966), and screenplays for films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1966).

She said, "You have to be very fond of men. Very, very fond. You have to be very fond of them to love them. Otherwise they're simply unbearable."

It's the birthday of blues singer Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915). He said that his grandmother nicknamed him Muddy Waters because as a boy he liked to play in the muddy creek near his house. He learned to play the blues in the Mississippi delta style from performers like Robert Johnson and Son House. He worked as a farmhand during the week, but he began to perform at juke joints, fish fries, and parties on the weekends.

In 1941, the musicologist Alan Lomax came through Mississippi, recording folk singers for the Library of Congress, and he made several recordings of Muddy Waters. Waters was so impressed by hearing his own music on a record that he decided to move to Chicago and try to make it as a professional musician. He had always played blues on an acoustic guitar, but when he got to Chicago, he found that most of the bars were too noisy for an acoustic guitar to be heard. So Waters decided to start using an amplifier, which had recently been invented, and he became one of the first people to play Mississippi blues on an electric guitar.

At first, record labels wouldn't release his songs because they weren't jazzy enough, but in 1948 his song "I Can't Be Satisfied" became a hit. Two years later, he recorded his first song for Chess Records, called "Rolling Stone." That song became the inspiration for the English rock band The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan's song "Like a Rolling Stone," as well as Rolling Stone magazine. Waters went on to record many more songs, including "Standing Around Crying" (1952) and "Hoochie Coochie Man" (1953), and he became one of the most influential blues musicians of the twentieth century.

It's the birthday of reformer Dorothea Dix, born in Hampden, Maine (1802). Her father came from a wealthy family and went to Harvard, but he dropped out of college to marry a woman his family didn't approve of. Dorothea grew up in the backwoods of New England, where her father worked as a traveling preacher. She slept on the attic floor of her family's tiny cabin, and instead of going to school she spent her days binding her father's written sermons into pamphlets to be sold to parishioners.

When she was twelve years old, she ran away to live with her grandmother in Boston, and enrolled in one of New England's finest private schools. She studied to be a teacher, and opened her first school when she was still a teenager. She had grown up as a strict Calvinist, believing that misfortune was the just punishment of a vengeful god. But in 1821, she heard a sermon by the controversial Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing, who persuaded her that God was not vengeful but benevolent. She decided that she should dedicate herself to helping the disadvantaged, and founded a school for poor students in her grandmother's barn.

After her grandmother died and left her a great deal of money, she no longer needed to work for a living, but she continued to volunteer as a teacher in various schools. In 1841, she volunteered to teach at the Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts. It was on a tour of the prison that she first saw mentally ill inmates chained to the walls in darkness, with no heat and little food, sleeping naked on the stone floor. She was horrified, and began visiting nearly every prison in the state, documenting everything she saw.

In 1843, Dix went to the Massachusetts legislature to present her findings about the treatment of the mentally ill. She said to the legislature, "I come to present the strong claims of suffering humanity. I come to place before the Legislature of Massachusetts the condition of the miserable, the desolate, the outcast. I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane men and women; of beings sunk to a condition from which the unconcerned world would start with real horror."

She was the first American to argue that mentally ill people were not criminals, and she established the first hospitals dedicated to humane treatment of the insane. Despite serious health problems, including malaria, she spent the rest of her life traveling around the United States and Europe, speaking on behalf of the poor and disabled. She never married. When asked why she chose to become a reformer, she said, "In a world where there is so much to be done, I felt strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do."

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