Jan. 14, 2005

The Very Rich Hours of the Houses of France

by David Kirby

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Poem: "The Very Rich Hours of the Houses of France" by David Kirby, from I Think I Am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay © Orchisis, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

The Very Rich Hours of the Houses of France

Our plane falls from the sky
into France, where everyone seems
so much happier than we are,
but no, it's not the people
who are happy, it's the buildings,
the high-beamed Norman farmhouses,
the cottages with roofs of trim thatch,
the chateaux set in verdant vineyards.
The people are like you and me:
their clothes don't fit very well,
their children are ungrateful,
and they're always blowing their noses.
But the buildings are warm and well-lit,
and even the ones that aren't,
the ones that have bad lighting
and poor insulation and green things
growing on the tile, even these
seem to be trying like crazy to comfort us,
to say something to us in French,
in House, in words we can understand.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Mary Robison, born in Washington, D.C. (1949). Her most recent book is called Why Did I Ever (2001), which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction.

She grew up in Ohio with five brothers and two sisters. She ran away from home twice when she was young, one of those times going to Florida to look for Jack Kerouac. She always wanted to be a writer, and she kept journals and diaries and wrote poetry as a teenager. She started writing seriously when she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked with John Barth. In addition to novels and short stories, she has also written screenplays. She says, "I'm afraid of autobiography and fond of my family. I'm not ready to write them really."

It's the birthday of writer Anchee Min, born in Shanghai, China (1957). She is the author of a memoir about growing up in communist China called Red Azalea (1994). The book was banned in China, but after its success here, she was invited back to her homeland to make some public appearances. Min writes in English even though she didn't speak it until she was twenty-seven years old. She learned English when she came to the United States by watching Sesame Street and Oprah on television. She says, "Her show played a big role in convincing me to get my story out, the way she encourages guests to reveal their past by telling them it's all right to speak out about what they consider shameful."

Min is the eldest of four children. Her father taught astronomy, but lost his job when he taught his students about sunspots. The sun was thought to represent Chairman Mao, and so talking about sunspots was considered a criticism of the communist system.

In 1974, Min was separated from her family and sent to a labor camp near the East China Sea. It was there that a group of talent scouts saw her working in the fields and picked her to star in a film, but changing political climates prevented the film from being made. Her association with the movie made her a political outcast, and so she began the process of getting permission to leave China for the United States.

Min worked as a plumber's assistant, a waitress, and a baby-sitter when she first moved to the U.S. She even held a job painting flowers on women's underwear. She took English classes at Chicago's University of Illinois and learned English well enough to eventually earn a B.F.A. and an M.F.A from the Art Institute of Chicago. Min once said her writing process was "like a long line of ants walking for blocks carrying one crooked cricket leg."

It's the birthday of columnist Maureen Dowd, born in Washington D.C. (1952). She was one of five children, and her father was a native of Ireland who worked as a police detective for the city. She said, "For me, the Capitol is not just a famous building; it's where my mother and I picked up my father from work. The Lincoln Memorial is where we went on cheap dates."

Dowd was well known for what she called "warts-and-all journalism," especially her articles on former president George H.W. Bush, who was not always happy with how she portrayed him.

Her first job out of college was at the pool and tennis club at the Washington Hilton, but she quit because her family didn't like that she wore a tennis dress to work. She tried substitute teaching after that, but finally ended up as an editorial assistant for the Washington Star. She said, "I was almost fired every day because I couldn't take a decent phone message."

She was hired by the New York Times in 1983 when the editor found Dowd's two-year old résumé in a pile of old job applications. In 1995, she became the fourth woman in the history of the Times to have her own op-ed column. She said, "The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for."

She's described as habitually late, and her favorite meal is said to be potato chips and champagne. She said, "Attacking the press is a cheap way to throw the spotlight off a politician who is stumbling."

It's the birthday of novelist John Dos Passos, born in Chicago (1896). His grandfather was a Portuguese immigrant and had worked as a shoemaker in Philadelphia.

His father served in the American Civil War as a drummer boy, and he was a successful lawyer by the time Dos Passos was born.

Dos Passos was born out of wedlock, and so he lived with his mother. He moved around so much that he called himself a "hotel child," living in Mexico, Belgium, England, Washington D.C. and on a farm in Virginia. He attended the Choate School, a private American prep school, where his friends called him by the nickname "Dos."

Dos Passos later attended Harvard, where he was a classmate of e. e. cummings. He went to Spain to study architecture after he graduated, but with the outbreak of World War I, he worked as a volunteer ambulance driver instead. He later enlisted in the United States Medical Corps as a private. He served in France and Italy, and those experiences inspired his anti-war novels, One Man's Initiation (1920), and Three Soldiers (1921). When the war was over, he worked as a newspaper correspondent in Spain, Mexico, and New York. He said, "People don't choose their careers; they are engulfed by them."

Dos Passos was a sympathizer of the radical left when he was young. He wrote, "My sympathies lie with the private in the front line against the brass hat; with the hodcarrier against the strawboss, or the walking delegate for that matter; with the laboratory worker against the stuffed shirt in a mortarboard; with the criminal against the cop."

As Dos Passos got older, his views became more conservative. One of the reasons for this shift was the execution of his friend, Jose Robles, by Communists during the Spanish Civil War.

His other books include Manhattan Transfer (1925), and the famous U.S.A. trilogy, comprised of The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936).

The nearsighted Dos Passos was shy and didn't like to speak in public or over the radio. Later on in his life, he lived on Cape Cod, where he wrote in the mornings and sailed and swam in the afternoons. He also sketched and painted. In 1937, a New York gallery held an exhibit of 30 of his sketches. He hated talking about the literary world and avoided what he called "talking shop." He said, "If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works."

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