Jul. 15, 2004

Bums at Breakfast

by David Wagoner

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Poem: "Bums at Breakfast," by David Wagoner, from Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. © University of Illinois Press.

Bums at Breakfast

Daily, the bums sat down to eat in our kitchen.
They seemed to be whatever the day was like:
If it was hot or cold, they were hot or cold;
If it was wet, they came in dripping wet.
One left his snowy shoes on the back porch
But his socks stuck to the clean linoleum,
And one, when my mother led him to the sink,
Wrung out his hat instead of washing his hands.

My father said they'd made a mark on the house,
A hobo's sign on the sidewalk, pointing the way.
I hunted everywhere, but never found it.
It must have said, "It's only good in the morning—
When the husband's out." My father knew by heart
Lectures on Thrift and Doggedness,
But he was always either working or sleeping.
My mother didn't know any advice.

They ate their food politely, with old hands,
Not looking around, and spoke in short, plain answers.
Sometimes they said what they'd been doing lately
Or told us what was wrong; but listening hard,
I broke their language into secret codes:
Their east meant west, their job meant walking and walking,
Their money meant danger, home meant running and hiding,
Their father and mother were different kinds of weather.

Dumbly, I watched them leave by the back door,
Their pockets empty as a ten-year-old's;
Yet they looked twice as rich, being full of breakfast.
I carried mine like a lump all the way to school.
When I was growing hungry, where would they be?
None ever came twice. Never to lunch or dinner.
They were always starting fresh in the fresh morning.
I dreamed of days that stopped at the beginning.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Iris Murdoch, born to Anglo-Irish parents in Dublin (1919). Her novels include A Severed Head (1961), The Sea, The Sea (1978) and Jackson's Dilemma (1995). But she was a philosopher before she was a novelist. As a student, she wrote in her journal, "For me, philosophical problems are the problems of my own life." She took classes at Cambridge from Ludwig Wittgenstein, and her first book was a study of Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, published in 1953. In the meantime, she had written five novels, but she threw all of them away because she wasn't satisfied with them. In 1954, she finally finished a novel she was proud of, about an Irishman's adventures in London and Paris. It was published as Under the Net, and it was a great success.

She went on to write twenty-six novels over the next forty years. She wrote all of her books in longhand, copied them out, sealed two handwritten manuscripts in plastic bags, and carried them down to her publisher herself. She was a perfectionist, and she never let publishers change a word of what she had written.

Murdoch said, "Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck."

It's the birthday of two best-selling adventure novelists, Clive Cussler and (Ralph) Hammond Innes.

Clive Cussler was born in Aurora, Illinois (1931). His books have sold more than a hundred and twenty million copies around the world. He's best known as the author of a series of novels about underwater action adventures. The hero is a hotshot federal agent named Dirk Pitt, the special projects director for the National Underwater and Marine Agency. His duties range from exposing government corruption to exploring the Titanic wreckage for lost treasure.

Ralph Hammond Innes was born in Horsham, in the county of Sussex, England (1914). He wrote thirty-five novels, including The Doppelganger (1937), Wreckers Must Breathe (1940) and Delta Connection (1996).

It's the birthday of Richard Armour, born in San Pedro, California (1906). For most of his life he worked as a professor at various universities, while writing light verse for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker on the side. He once said, "I wear two costumes: cap-and-gown and cap-and-bells." He wrote over forty books, and thousands of articles and poems. He's the author of Twisted Tales of Shakespeare (1957), Nights with Armour (1958) and Golf is a Four-Letter Word (1962).

He wrote, "In larger things we are convivial / What causes trouble is the trivial."

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




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