Oct. 31, 2004

The Day My Mother Died

by Marge Piercy

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Poem: "The day my mother died," by Marge Piercy, from Colors Passing Through Us © (Knopf).

The day my mother died

I seldom have premonitions of death.
That day opened like any
ordinary can of tomatoes.

The alarm drilled into my ear.
The cats stirred and one leapt off.
The scent of coffee slipped into my head

like a lover into my arms and I sighed,
drew the curtains and examined
the face of the day.

I remember no dreams of loss.
No dark angel rustled ominous wings
or whispered gravely.

I was caught by surprise
like the trout that takes the fly
and I gasped in the fatal air.

You were gone suddenly as a sound
fading in the coil of the ear
no trace, no print, no ash

just the emptiness of stilled air.
My hunger feeds on itself.
My hands are stretched out

to grasp and find only their
own weight bearing them down
toward the dark cold earth.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. The modern holiday comes from an age-old tradition honoring the supernatural blending of the world of the living and the world of the dead. Halloween is based on a Celtic holiday called Samhain. The festival marked the start of winter and the last stage of the harvest, the slaughtering of animals. It was believed that the dark of winter allowed the spirits of the dead to transgress the borders of death and haunt the living.

Eventually, Christian holidays developed at around the same time. During the Middle Ages, November 1 became known as All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day. The holiday honored all of the Christian saints and martyrs. Medieval religion taught that dead saints regularly interceded in the affairs of the living. On All Saints Day, churches held masses for the dead and put bones of the saints on display. The night before this celebration of the holy dead became known as All Hallows Eve. People baked Soul Cakes, which they would set outside their house for the poor. They also lit bonfires and set out lanterns carved out of turnips to keep the ghosts of the dead away. Pumpkins did not grow in Europe and so did not become a part of Halloween until after Columbus discovered the New World.

It's the birthday of English poet John Keats, born in London (1795). Keats's short life was marked by the deaths of friends and family members. His father died when he was nine, and one year later his grandfather died. When he was fifteen, his mother died of tuberculosis, the disease that eventually killed his brother and, later, Keats himself. Keats said he felt "a personal soreness which the world has exacerbated." He began writing poetry after he had started his career as an apothecary in London. His first book, Poems (1817), was not well received. His publishers dropped him, but other poets saw promise in his work. His breakthrough poem was a sonnet called "On first looking into Chapman's Homer." Keats had stayed up all night reading George Chapman's translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey with a friend. They stopped reading at 6:00 A.M., and by 10:00, Keats had written the poem and set it on the breakfast table for his friend.

Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a young woman whom he met shortly after the death of his brother. He was at first unimpressed, describing her as "ignorant--monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions . . ." But a relationship quickly developed, and they were engaged in 1819. The two wrote frequently to one another, but did not spend much time together. Keats was already fighting his own ill-health. In one letter, he wrote, "I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death."

Keats wrote most of the poetry for which he is famous in one twelve-month period, from September 1818 to September 1819. He wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and "To Autumn." One of Keats's sonnets foreshadowed his early death. He wrote, "When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, / . . .—then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink." (1818). He died three years later, in a small bedroom in a house in Rome. His tombstone reads, at his request, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

Keats wrote in a letter to a friend, "Nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel."

And he wrote, "If Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all."

It's the birthday of mystery writer Dick Francis, born in Lawrenny, Wales (1920). After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Francis became a steeplechase jockey. He was an enormous success, winning over 350 races. He was nationally famous, and even became the official steeplechase jockey for Queen Elizabeth. After several bad falls, he retired from racing at age 37 and became the racing correspondent for the London Sunday Express. After working for the newspaper for a while, he began writing novels. His first book, Dead Cert (1962), launched his long career as a mystery writer. His 36 novels, including Blood Sport (1967) and Bonecrack (1972), are stories of murder and villainy set in the world of horse racing.

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