Apr. 27, 2004

Calling him back from layoff

by Bob Hicok

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Poem: "Calling him back from layoff," by Bob Hicok, from Insomnia Diary. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

Calling him back from layoff

I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I'm OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that's a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, born in Brooklyn, New York (1929). His first novel was The Sky Changes, the story of a couple's attempt to save their crumbling marriage by taking a road trip across America. He's gone on to write many more novels, including Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971), Mulligan Stew (1979) and his latest, Little Casino (2002). His poetry collections include The Orangery (1978) and White Sail (1977).

It's the birthday of playwright August Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). His plays include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990). He grew up in a poor section of Pittsburgh, in an apartment with no hot water. He was the only African-American in a private Catholic High School, and he used to start every day by throwing away racist notes that were left on his desk. He eventually transferred to a public high school, but things weren't much better there. For one assignment, he spent months doing research on Napoleon, wrote a twenty-page paper, saved up enough money to rent a typewriter and paid his sister twenty-five cents to type up the paper he had written. His history teacher thought it was so good that it couldn't possibly have been written by a fifteen-year-old black student.

Wilson left school and never came back. He worked at a series of menial jobs, and he started going to the library every day to read about whatever he was interested in. He fell in love with the works of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. In the spring of 1965, he wrote a college term paper about Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg for his sister. She paid him twenty dollars for his work, and on April 1, 1965, Wilson bought his first typewriter with that money. He typed his name, just to see how it would look, and from that point on he knew that he wanted to be a writer.

Wilson became involved in the Black Power movement of the '60s, and started writing politically inspired poetry and directing plays. In 1978, he went to visit a friend in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he liked the relaxed atmosphere so much that he decided to stay there. He found that living away from Pittsburgh allowed him to write about it, and in 1982 he wrote his first play, Jitney, set in a Pittsburgh taxi stand.

Two years later, Wilson was listening to old blues records by Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey when he came up with the idea for a play about 1920s blues musicians and their struggle against the interests of white recording companies. That idea turned into Wilson's big breakthrough, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1985. At one point in the play, Ma Rainey says, "White folks don't understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don't know how it got there. They don't understand that's life's way of talking. You don't sing to feel better. You sing 'cause that's a way of understanding life."

Wilson said, "Confront the dark parts of yourself. . . . Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing."

It's the birthday of the author of the "Madeline" books, Ludwig Bemelmans, born in Meran, Tyrol, Austria (1898). He went to many different schools, but he failed out of all them, so his family sent him to work with his uncle, who owned a chain of hotels. When he shot and almost killed a waiter for one of the hotels, his parents gave him the choice of reform school or emigration to America. He chose America, and arrived in New York when he was sixteen years old.

He worked at a series of hotels, and then started his own restaurant, which became very successful. He didn't think about becoming a writer until a friend in the publishing industry happened to see his childlike drawings on the walls of his apartment. His friend suggested that he write and illustrate a children's book, and a few years later the first "Madeline" book was published.

Madeline (1939) begins: "In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread, and brushed their teeth, and went to bed. They smiled at the good, and frowned at the bad, and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine, in two straight lines, in rain or shine . . . the smallest one was Madeline!"

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




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