May 12, 2004

Dancing Class

by George Garrett

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Poems: "Dancing Class," by George Garrett, from The Collected Poems of George Garrett. University of Arkansas Press. Reprinted with permission.

Dancing Class

On certain days when wind and tide and sun
cease their ancient struggles and begin to dance,
the river runs clear and clean again, and I
would drink from it if I didn't know better.

Today there are birds and yellow butterflies,
bumblebees browsing and humming over clover,
and gulls turning and crying above the river,
riding a breeze that teases flags and sails.

My eldest son, my firstborn, lies alone in his room,
home from hard failures, wounded, hoping
the sound of loud music will clear his aching head
of shadows and silt, the pale grin of his own grave.

It is folly to drink. The river water is poison.
Hear how the gulls cry out like cats in the night.
After all our wrestling, our sacrificial wounds,
can father and son ever learn to dance together?

If I could, I would bring him this day like a glass,
window, or mirror, to look into and through,
if only to see himself wink like an angel
or a perfect stranger worth listening to.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of actress Katharine Hepburn, born in Hartford, Connecticut (1907). She became a Hollywood star by not doing anything that Hollywood stars were supposed to do. She didn't wear make-up or dresses, she didn't cooperate with the media, and she had a habit of insulting other people in the business. Her looks were unconventional: she had red hair and freckles and sharp cheekbones. But she was one of the best and most popular actresses of the twentieth century. She won four Academy Awards and was nominated for eight more. Her films included Bringing Up Baby (1938), The African Queen (1951), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) and On Golden Pond (1981).

Hepburn played smart, sexy, independent women who were always able to get the guy in the end. She was a wisecracker, but she was also graceful and charming; and her on-screen persona was usually just about the same as her off-screen persona. She first made a name for herself on Broadway in the role of an Amazon in The Warrior's Husband. The role required her to come on stage by leaping down a flight of steep steps while carrying a stag on her shoulders, and a talent scout was so impressed by the feat that he offered her a movie deal.

She starred with John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and suddenly she went from making eighty dollars a week to 1,500 dollars a week. It took her just a year to win her first Oscar, for her role in Morning Glory (1933). After that she hand-picked each of her movies, and she often had a say in who the other actors in the movie would be. Sometimes she rewrote her own lines, something almost no other actress would have dared to do at the time.

She acted opposite Spencer Tracey in a string of hits in the 1940s—Woman of the Year (1942), State of the Union (1948) and Adam's Rib (1949). She said, "On screen Spencer and I are the perfect American couple. I needle him. If he put a big paw out and put it on my head, he could squash me. I think that is the romantic, ideal picture of the male and female in this country."

Hepburn said, "If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun."

It's the birthday of Farley Mowat, born in Belleville, Ontario (1921). He's written books of history, young adult novels, and nonfiction books about the people and animals of Canada. He grew up on the Canadian prairie. By the time he was thirteen he was going off alone on thirty-mile snowshoe trips across the Saskatchewan plains, and he had started his own nature magazine called Nature Lore. Later, he wrote a nature column called "Prairie Pals" for the local newspaper.

When he was eighteen he went off to Italy to serve in World War II, and it was there that he started writing his first books. One day, he was sitting in an armored vehicle, bracing himself for the sound of bullets and grenades. He said he felt a "sense of revulsion against my own species," and so he started writing about his dog back home. He later said, "I went back to the only safe place in my mind—my childhood. It was my escape, and it saved my bloody life." The book became The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, and it was published in 1957.

Mowat is probably best known for his books about the Canadian Arctic. In the summer of 1947, he took a job with the Canadian government as a biologist in the Northwest Territories. His assignment was to write about wolves and their effect on the caribou population. He found out that it wasn't wolves that were causing the caribou to die out, but human fur trappers, and he wrote about it in Never Cry Wolf (1963). It became a bestseller in North America, and also in Russia, where the government banned the slaughter of wolves thanks to Mowat's findings.

It's the birthday of poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, born in London (1828). He was an original member of the Pre-Raphaelite group of painters, who were inspired by the medieval style of painting that was popular before the Renaissance. He wrote what many consider to be his best poem, "The Blessed Damozel," when he was nineteen years old.

It's the birthday of poet Edward Lear, born in London (1812). While he was alive, he was famous for his landscape paintings and drawings, but today he's best known for his nonsense poetry. He was one of the masters of the limerick, before the word "limerick" was even in the dictionary.

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