Feb. 4, 2005

Poem for the Family

by Susan Cataldo

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Poem: "Poem for the Family" by Susan Cataldo, from drenched: selected poems of Susan Cataldo 1979-1999. Reprinted with permission.

Poem for the Family

Before I went to sleep, the soft lamplights
from the tenements across the street,
still, in the night, resembled peace.
There is something I forgot to be grateful
for. But I'm not uneasy. This poem
is enough gratitude for the day. That leaf
tapping against the window, enough
music for the night. My love's even
breathing, a lullaby for me.
Gentle is the sun's touch
as it brushes the earth's revolutions.
Fragrant is the moon in February's
sky. Stars look down & witness,
never judge. The City moves
beneath me, out of sight.
O let this poem be a planet
or a haven. Heaven for a poet
homeward bound. Rest my son's head
upon sweet dreams & contentment.
Let me turn out the light to rest.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Stewart O'Nan, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1961). He's the author of many novels, including Snow Angels (1994), A Prayer for the Dying (1999) and The Night Country (2003).

He's known for writing about unsympathetic characters, criminals and delinquents, but he said, "I want [readers] to live and die for my characters even though they have massive faults. Popular culture has brainwashed us into believing that our heroes need to be blameless, and that just drives me nuts."

He got in trouble when he tried to publish his novel The Speed Queen (1997), about a woman on death row who sells her story to a famous American writer. In the original draft of the book, that famous American writer was Stephen King, and O'Nan wanted to call the novel "Dear Stephen King." Stephen King's lawyers threatened to sue if he didn't change the name of the character and the name of the novel, and eventually he did.

Later, he and Stephen King got to know each other and became friends, and last year they wrote a book together about the Boston Red Sox called Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

It's the birthday of the poet Gavin Ewart, born in London, England (1916). He's the author of many books of poetry, including Pleasures of the Flesh (1966) and The Learned Hippopotamus (1987).

He started his poetic career early, when he was just 17 years old, by publishing a poem in the prestigious British literary journal New Verse. He published his first book of poems when he was 23, and his work was compared to T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. But then, when World War II broke out, he stopped writing poetry for 25 years.

He didn't publish another book until 1964, when his collection Londoners came out. After that, he became one of the most popular writers of light verse in England, and he specialized in poems about love and sex. He wrote, "The path of true love isn't smooth, / the ruffled feathers sex can soothe, / soon ruffle again—for couples never / spend all their lives in bed together."

He died in 1992, just a few months short of his 80th birthday. His work is available in this country in The Selected Poems of Gavin Ewart (1988).

It's the birthday of the experimental novelist and short story writer Robert Coover, born in Charles City, Iowa (1932). As a boy, he moved with his family to a mining town in rural Illinois, where his father ran the local newspaper. In 1951, he had just come home from college for the holidays, when a mining accident killed a number of miners. His father asked him to help cover the story for the newspaper, and he witnessed the family members of dead miners grieving over the unidentifiable bodies.

He later said, "I began to wonder what might happen if some guy did get rescued, and came up thinking he'd been saved for some divine mission. What might that lead to?" That idea led to his first short story and his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966), about the lone survivor of a mining accident who goes on to start a religious cult.

He has gone on to write many experimental novels, including The Universal Baseball Association (1968), The Public Burning (1977), and Spanking the Maid (1981). His first several books were so wildly different from one another in style and content that he had to constantly jump from one publisher to the next. His 13th book, Gerald's Party (1986) was the first novel he published without it having been rejected by a publisher at least once.

He has occasionally been attacked for some of his more controversial satirical novels. He once said, "A recent review of one of my books... described my work as some sort of terrorist mission—and yet I be controversial in that way. It's proof I'm alive."

His most recent book is Stepmother, which came out last year.

Robert Coover said, "The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn't imagine ourselves through a day without it."

It's the birthday of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in Breslau, Prussia (1906). He came from a family of Lutheran theologians and pastors and decided when he was 16 that he wanted to study for the ministry. He finished his first doctoral dissertation in theology by the time he was only 21 years old. He was a perfectionist in everything, from academics to sports. One of his friends said that he always gave the impression that he was savoring good food. His teachers thought he was a genius, and they expected him to become one of the foremost Christian theologians of his generation.

He thought the Lutheran religious community in Germany was too narrow in its focus, not engaged enough with the world at large, and so in 1930, he hopped a ship for New York City to study at the Union Theological Seminary. He had a maverick professor there who taught theology by way of the Harlem Renaissance, assigning books by Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson. Bonhoeffer was inspired to start attending a black church in Harlem, where he began to teach Sunday school, and he also witnessed his church's struggle against racism.

In 1931, when Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin, he suddenly saw the anti-Semitism that had been brewing in his county with a new clarity. When Hitler took power in 1933, other pastors and theologians in Germany chose to ignore it, but Bonhoeffer made a speech on the radio denouncing fascism that was cut off by the authorities before he'd finished speaking. He became the head of an underground seminary, and published his book The Cost of Discipleship (1937), which became one of the most influential works on the theology of social justice.

Though he'd previously been a pacifist, Bonhoeffer decided to join a plot to assassinate Hitler. He said, "Will the church merely gather up those whom the wheel has crushed or will it prevent the wheel from crushing them?" The assassination plot was a failure, and Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943.

Just before he was arrested, he got engaged to a young woman named Maria von Wedemeyer. They'd met through each other's families. Bonhoeffer had proposed to her through her grandmother. According to the social custom of the era, they had never been alone together. Maria later said she's fallen in love with him because of the way his hand looked on the couch next to her. They began a correspondence while he was in prison, and it was to her that he wrote many of his final thoughts about theology and life.

Bonhoeffer and Maria also discussed ordinary things in their letters. She asked him if he liked dogs. He asked her if she liked skiing. They made plans for their wedding, and picked which flowers they might use at the ceremony. She told him that she had drawn a chalk line on the floor around her bed the size of his prison cell, so she could imagine she was with him.

In his final letter to her, Bonhoeffer wrote, "I have often found that the quieter my surroundings, the more vividly I sense my connection with you..." He was executed a few months later. The correspondence between him and Maria were collected in the book Love Letters From Cell 92 (1994).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Love is not something in its own right, it is what people are and have become."

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




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