Jan. 16, 2005

A Color of the Sky

by Tony Hoagland

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Poem: "A Color of the Sky" by Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means to Me © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Color of the Sky

Windy today and I feel less than brilliant,
driving over the hills from work.
There are the dark parts on the road
  when you pass through clumps of wood
and the bright spots where you have a view of the ocean,
but that doesn't make the road an allegory.

I should call Marie and apologize
for being so boring at dinner last night,
but can I really promise not to be that way again?
And anyway, I'd rather watch the trees, tossing
in what certainly looks like sexual arousal.

Otherwise it's spring, and everything looks frail;
the sky is baby blue, and the just-unfurling leaves
are full of infant chlorophyll,
the very tint of inexperience.

Last summer's song is making a comeback on the radio,
and on the highway overpass,
the only metaphysical vandal in America has written
in big black spraypaint letters,

which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.

Last night I dreamed of X again.
She's like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I'm glad.

What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.

Outside the youth center, between the liquor store
and the police station,
a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,
like a sudsy mug of beer;
like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature's wastefulness seems quietly obscene.
It's been doing that all week:
making beauty,
and throwing it away,
and making more.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Anthony Hecht, born in New York City (1923). Hecht won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry, and served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, but his interest in writing did not come early. He said that in school he was so "conspicuous" in his "mediocrity" that his mother had him tested to see if anything was wrong. The tests found him to be without any "aptitudes whatsoever."

Hecht fell in love with poetry during his freshman year at Bard College. When he told his parents that he intended to become a poet, they asked their only literary friend for advice: Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Geisel's advice was that Hecht should read the Life of Joseph Pulitzer, which he never did, because he suspected it would be discouraging. Until his death on October 20, 2004, Hecht discouraged new poets from reading that book, since not reading it had served him so well.

It's the birthday of the Canadian poet Robert W. Service, born in Preston, England in 1874. He moved to Canada in 1897 and for eight years worked in the Yukon for the Canadian Bank of Commerce. It was there that he began to write. He said, "I was greatly surprised to find my work acceptable."

Influenced by Kipling, Robert W. Service wrote ballads about Yukon life. Two of these poems, his most famous, are "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." They appeared in Songs of a Sourdough (1907, reprinted in 1915 as The Spell of the Yukon). He left the Yukon to report about the Balkan War for the Toronto Star. During World War I he drove an ambulance, which gave him material for Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916). After the war he moved to France and wrote more in his later years, but he never met the same fame as he had with his poems about the Yukon.

It's the birthday of the novelist William Kennedy, born in Albany, New York (1928). Kennedy's novel Ironweed was the third in his "Albany trilogy," but it was the first success. When it was published in 1983, there was an immediate demand for the first two: Legs (1975) and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978). The trilogy, which was set in the "sin city" days of Albany's Prohibition and Depression eras, made Kennedy famous and put his hometown on the map. Ironweed won him a National Book Award and a Pulitzer; in 1987 it was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.

William Kennedy, who said about the life of a writer, "There's only a short walk from the hallelujah to the hoot."

It's the birthday of essayist and cultural critic Susan Sontag, also born in New York City (1933). Her father died when she was five, and her mother moved her and her sister first to Tucson, Arizona, and then to the suburbs of LA. She was an intellectual even as a child, buying the Partisan Review and reading Trilling, Rosenberg, and Arendt. She graduated from high school at age 15 and became a serial academic. She took classes at Berkeley, then earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago after only two years of classes. She earned two master's degrees from Harvard, studied at Oxford and the University of Paris, and then, in 1959, moved with her son to New York City. During the course of her studies she had married, had a child with, and divorced Philip Rieff, who had been one of her professors at the University of Chicago.

Susan Sontag said that she prefers to think of herself as a novelist. Her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963. Her most popular, The Volcano Lover, came out in 2002. But it is her essays that made her famous.

In her early essays, Sontag wrote criticism of art and culture. Other critical essays of the early 60s were dry and academic—hers were not. Her essay "Notes on Camp" was first published in the Partisan Review in 1964. Sontag suggested that even bad art can be appreciated, that there can be "a good taste of bad taste." The essay had a huge impact on the New York intellectual world, and Susan Sontag became a sort of spokesperson for American avant garde.

In 1969 Sontag decided to try filmmaking, which fascinated her. She said it gave her the chance to exercise a part of her imagination and her powers in a way that she couldn't as a writer. But she missed writing. She says: "I thought: where I am? what am I doing? what have I done? I seem to be an expatriate, but I didn't mean to become an expatriate. I don't seem to be a writer anymore, but I wanted most of all to be a writer."

In 1976 she returned to the literary world, this time focusing on short stories. That same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctors told her she had two years to live. She searched for treatment options and found alternatives with a doctor in France. She not only survived, but also wrote Illness as Metaphor (1978), which looked at the way language is used to describe disease. It was one of her most significant books. Other critical works include AIDS and Its Metaphors (1988) and On Photography (1977).

Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, said his mother had "an unslakable kind of curiosity, of interest in the world. She is someone who can go to an opera, meet someone at two in the morning to go to the Ritz and listen to some neo-Nazi punk synthesizer band and then get up the next morning to see two Crimean dissidents."

Sontag succumbed to complications of leukemia in Manhattan on December 28, 2004, among her a personal library of 15,000 books, neatly arranged by historical period: Egyptians, Greeks, Fascism, Communism. She said, "What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what's in the books, because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember."

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




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