May 9, 2004

Twisting Vines

by Debra Nystrom

SUNDAY, 9 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Twisting Vines," by Debra Nystrom, from Torn Sky. © Sarabande Books. Reprinted with permission.

Twisting Vines

My mother bought a dress once and my dad
said it looked like curtains. Nothing if not honest,
nothing much but me to his name, doing his best
about the trike and baby pool, new triple-speed
living-room fan, her just-landed job as a typist
while her mother baby-sat. There must
have been some wedding, or National Guard
occasion--James-Dean handsome he was,
even in eagle-crest hat, glare-polished shoes--
but the dress went right back in its creased
paper bag, unused. She had modeled it for me first
though, gazing over each shoulder to the longest
mirror before he got home, smeared and hot
from painting houses. How does it look, hon?--
that dress I remember more than any other,
off a rack at London's, our two-block downtown's
only clothes store. Scoop-necked, she called it,
for summer. Cap-sleeved. White, with a pattern of
little twisting green vines. I touched the satin piping
that showed off her collarbone, tiny waistline.
Made her look like a full grown fairy out of my book.
Those days she still sang when she sifted flour, folded
laundry plucked off the line by the morning
glories and tulips--"Tammy's in Love," "Blue Moon,"
"My Buddy." Never again got herself
what she wished for, if she knew.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Mother's Day, the day on which we celebrate the women who brought us into the world. The holiday was the idea of a woman named Anna Jarvis, a schoolteacher who had lived with her mother for most of her life. After her mother died, she got the idea to set aside one day a year for the celebration of mothers. She chose the second Sunday in May because that was when her own mother had died. The first Mother's Day celebration was held at Anna Jarvis's church on May 10, 1908, and at the end of the service Anna Jarvis gave each mother a carnation, because carnations had been her mother's favorite flowers.

The idea for the holiday spread across the country, and then in May of 1914, an Alabama legislator named Thomas "Cotton Tom" Heflin introduced a bill to make Mother's Day an official holiday. When President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill, he ordered flags to be flown on Mother's Day from all public buildings. Cotton Tom said, "The flag was never used in a more beautiful and sacred cause than when flying above that tender, gentle army: the mothers of America."

Mark Twain said, "My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it."

It's the birthday of poet Joy Harjo, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1951). She was a mother of two children, and had been supporting herself as a waitress, service station attendant, and a nursing assistant when she was accepted into the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She has since written many books of poetry, including What Moon Drove Me to This? (1979), In Mad Love and War (1990), and How We Became Human (2002).

It's the birthday of Richard Adams, born in Newbury, England (1920). He's best known for his first novel, Watership Down (1972), in which he wrote about a band of rabbits and their epic journey to find a new den. It was one of the first works of fiction about animals that tried to realistically portray how they eat, mate, live and die.

It's the birthday of poet Mona Van Duyn, born in Waterloo, Iowa (1921). She has published many books of poetry, including A Time of Bees (1964), Bedtime Stories (1972), and Near Changes (1990), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her Selected Poems came out in 2002.

It's the birthday of journalist, novelist, and playwright J(ames) M(atthew) Barrie, born in Angus, Scotland (1860). As a young man, he became a very successful writer of sentimental novels and humorous plays. Then, after his marriage in 1894 didn't produce any children, he started spending time with the children of one of his friends. He began to tell them stories about a boy who had run away to a place called Never Land, where he refused to grow up, and he named that boy Peter Pan.

Barrie first wrote about Peter Pan in a book of children's stories called The Little White Bird (1902). Two years later, he produced the play Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up (1904), which included the story about Peter and Wendy and Captain Hook. Even though he'd produced many successful plays before, Barrie became obsessed with the production of Peter Pan. He rewrote the script more than twenty times. It was one of the most expensive productions ever attempted at that time, since it required the construction of harnesses and wires so that the actors could appear to fly around the stage.

It's the birthday of poet Charles Simic, born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). His family survived the bombing of Belgrade during World War II, and fled Eastern Europe after the war was over. Simic said, "My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin. They were the reason I ended up in the United States."

They wound up in Oak Park, Illinois, and Simic went to the same high school Ernest Hemingway had gone to. The high school teachers there were always reminding kids that Hemingway had gone before them, and that inspired Simic to become a writer. He was drawn to poetry because his English still wasn't very good, and in poems he didn't have to use so many words.

After a few years of working as a proofreader at the Chicago Sun Times, he moved to New York City, which he loved. In 1962, Simic enlisted in the army. While stationed in Germany, he asked his brother to send him all the poems he had left behind in the United States. When he got the poems in the mail, he sat up all night in the barracks reading them and ripping them up one by one, because he thought they were all imitations of other writers. When they were all gone he suddenly realized that he had nothing left and he would have to start from scratch. So he started writing poems about simple things, household objects—a knife, a fork, a spoon, his shoes. In his poem "My Shoes" (1971), he wrote, "Shoes, secret face of my inner life: / Two gaping toothless mouths, / Two partly decomposed animal skins / Smelling of mice nests."

Simic published his first book of poetry, What the Grass Says, in 1967, and he went on to publish many more collections, including School for Dark Thoughts (1978), Frightening Toys (1995) and Night Picnic (2001). His most recent collection, The Voice At 3:00 AM, came out last year.

Simic said, "Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. We are always at the beginning, eternal apprentices."

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