Jan. 28, 2005

At My Funeral

by Willis Barnstone

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Poem: "At My Funeral" by Willis Barnstone, from Life Watch. © BOA Editions Limited. Reprinted with permission.

At My Funeral

I take a seat in the third row
and catch the eulogies. It's sweet
to see old friends, some I don't know.
I wear a tie, good shoes, and greet
a stranger with a kiss. It's bliss
for an insecure guy to hear
deep words. I'll live on them, not miss
a throb, and none of us will fear
the night. There are no tears, no sad
faces, no body or sick word
of God. I sing, have a warm chat
with friends gone sour, wipe away bad
blood. And sweet loves? I tell a bird
to tip them off. Then tip my hat.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1986 that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. That evening, President Ronald Reagan eulogized the lost astronauts in one of the finest addresses of his presidency. He said, "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped 'the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

It's the birthday of the French novelist Colette, born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette in Saint-Sauver-en-Puisaye, France (1873). She is best known as the author of Cheri (1920) and Gigi (1945), but Colette published over fifty novels in her lifetime, many of them autobiographical.

Colette's first books are known as the Claudine series, and they were published under the name "Willy," which was the pen name of her first husband. These books follow the improper adventures of a young French woman. According to one story, her husband would lock Colette in a room until she had written enough words. This treatment, while cruel, also meant that Colette wrote four novels in four years.

Colette began working in the music halls of Paris when she divorced her husband. She became the talk of Paris for baring a breast on stage. She caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge for doing a pantomime of sexual intercourse during a sketch. It was also during this time that Colette began having affairs with women, as she would do between marriages throughout her life. She became involved with her manager, a woman known as "Missy" who was also a niece of Napoleon III.

When World War I broke out in Europe, Colette began working as a freelance journalist, but she also converted her home into a hospital for the war wounded. She remarried and gave birth to a daughter, who later claimed that her parents had neglected her. Colette also had a mysterious relationship with her stepson, and many people speculated that they had an affair. The publication of Cheri in 1920 only fueled that speculation. It is the story of an aging woman engaging in an affair with a young, inexperienced man.

The publication of Cheri also brought Colette great fame as a writer. By the end of the 1920's, Colette was widely regarded as France's greatest woman writer. She became the first woman admitted to the prestigious Goncourt Academy, and in her later years achieved the same legendary status as Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate living in Paris.

In 1935, Colette married her third husband, a pearl salesman who had lost his business in the Depression. He was Jewish, and as a result had difficulty finding work. Colette supported him financially, and helped him hide when Germany occupied France in World War II. Colette's most famous novel, Gigi, was published in 1945, when she was seventy-two years old. Three years later, the novel was adapted into a film, and in 1958 it was adapted into a popular musical.

When Colette died in 1954, she was given a state funeral, and thousands of mourners attended the service.

Colette said, "By means of an image we are often able to hold on to our lost belongings. But it is the desperateness of losing which picks the flowers of memory, binds the bouquet."

It's the birthday of Jackson Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming (1912). He is best known for his innovations in abstract expressionist painting. He was often called "Jack the Dripper" because of his radical painting style.

Pollock's family moved to Arizona and California when he was a boy, and during this time Pollock first saw Indian sand paintings, which fascinated him. He later attended art school in California, where he studied seriously and drew a series of anatomy drawings.

In 1929, Pollock began studying under Thomas Hart Benton, the realist mural painter, at Manhattan's Art Students League. Pollock said, "He drove his kind of realism at me so hard I bounced right into nonobjective painting." Pollock became deeply influenced by Pablo Picasso's work, and the work of other surrealist painters, and this led Pollock to experiment with his painting. He developed the "drip" technique, where he would draw or drip paint onto enormous canvases. Sometimes he applied paint directly from the tube, and other times he used aluminum paint to make his work more brilliant. He was so energetic in his attacks on the canvas that his approach to painting became known as "action painting."

Jackson Pollock said, "Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you."

It's the birthday of the English novelist and critic David Lodge, born in London, England (1935). He is the author of several novels, many of which resemble Lodge's own life.

Lodge was born in suburban London to a traditional Catholic family, and he was raised in the years following World War II. His early novel, The Picturegoers (1960), is about a Catholic family in South London who take in a university student as a lodger. Other early novels bear striking resemblance to Lodge's own life: Ginger, You're Barmy (1962) draws upon Lodge's own compulsory service in the British military, and The British Museum is Falling Down (1970) follows the comical story of a Catholic graduate student working on his thesis. Aside from his semi-autobiographical novels, Lodge closely protects his privacy.

Lodge is the creator of the fictional town of Rummidge, which is based on Birmingham, England, and has been the setting for several novels. He has also created the imaginary American state of Euphoria, located between North California and South California, and is home to a state university in the city of Esseph, which is a fictionalized version of Berkeley, where Lodge taught for a brief time. His novels set in academia are usually satirical in nature.

David Lodge said, "A novel is a long answer to the question 'What is it about?' I think it should be possible to give a short answer—in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described."

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