Jun. 11, 2004

Cosmetics Do No Good

by Steve Kowit

FRIDAY, 11 JUNE, 2004
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Poem: "Cosmetics Do No Good," by Steve Kowit, from Passionate Journey. © City Miner Books. Reprinted with permission.

Cosmetics Do No Good

Cosmetics do no good:
no shadow, rouge, mascara, lipstick—
nothing helps.
However artfully I comb my hair,
embellishing my throat & wrists with jewels,
it is no use—there is no
semblance of the beautiful young girl
I was
& long for still.
My loveliness is past.
& no one could be more aware than I am
that coquettishness at this age
only renders me ridiculous.
I know it. Nonetheless,
I primp myself before the glass
like an infatuated schoolgirl
fussing over every detail,
practicing whatever subtlety
may please him.
I cannot help myself.
The God of Passion has his will of me
& I am tossed about
between humiliation & desire,
rectitude & lust,
disintegration & renewal,
ruin & salvation.

         after Vidyapati

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and playwright Ben Jonson, born in London (1572). He didn't want to be a bricklayer like his father, so he got a job as an actor and then began to write plays. He had a notoriously bad temper, and once killed another actor in a dual. He was put on trial, but right around the same time, his first important play, Every Man in His Humour (1598), premiered, with William Shakespeare as one of the actors. Even though he was a convicted felon, and spent time in prison, his work was popular enough for him to become a court poet.

It's the birthday of William Styron, born in Newport News, Virginia (1925). He enlisted in the Marines as a teenager, to fight in World War II, but by the time he'd finished training and set sail for Japan, the war had ended. He moved to Brooklyn, New York, and got a job as an office boy at the McGraw-Hill publishing house. He was supposed to write book jacket copy, but he was so disgusted with most of the books that he filled all his summaries with insults and foul language. After throwing several paper airplanes and water balloons out the window of his office, he got fired. So he decided to try to make it as a writer.

Styron had always wanted to be a writer, but, he said, "At twenty-two ... I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast." His first idea was to write a novel about slavery. It amazed him that his grandmother could remember when her family owned slaves, and he was always fascinated by the story of the slave uprising led by Nat Turner. But when he told a creative writing teacher about his idea, the teacher said he should wait until he had written a few novels before he tackled something so ambitious.

Then, he learned that a girl he'd once dated had committed suicide. He took a train to her funeral, and on the journey back to his hometown a novel took shape in his head about a girl's suicide and its effect on her family and community. That novel was Lie Down in Darkness (1951), and it got great reviews. He wrote two more novels before he went back to his first idea, and in 1967 he published The Confessions of Nat Turner, which became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His most recent book is A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth (1993).

It's the birthday of critic Irving Howe, born in the East Bronx, New York (1920). He's the author of many books of essays and criticism, but he's perhaps best known for his book World of Our Fathers (1976) about the history of Eastern European immigration to the United States.

It's the birthday of poet David Lehman, born in New York City (1948). He's the author of several books of poetry, including An Alternative to Speech (1986) and Operation Memory (1990). He started out writing poems in the style of his favorite New York poets, including Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery, a group known as the New York School. He has even written a book about those poets called The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (1998).

In 1995, Lehman went to a poetry reading by the poet Robert Bly, where Bly announced that he had been writing a poem a day every day before he got out of bed in the morning. Lehman liked the idea so he decided to try it himself, beginning in January 1996. He found that he loved being so productive. He said, "At one point, I wrote one of these a day for 140 days without a pause, and in that period I would wake up and look forward to the day and the composition of its poems. There was a buoyancy I'm not sure I ever had before. It was like finding out that I could write as easily as I speak." He published his daily poems in the collections The Daily Mirror (2000) and The Evening Sun (2002).

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