Feb. 24, 2005

In the Apartments of Divorced Men

by Sue Ellen Thompson

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Poem: "In the Apartments of the Divorced Men" by Sue Ellen Thompson, from The Leaving: New and Selected Poems. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.

In the Apartments of the Divorced Men

The apartments of the divorced men are small,
you can stand in the doorway
and see their whole lives as through a convex lens,

the way a fish sees all the ocean. Or
they are large, one room opening into another
until it seems the whole white winter sky

has settled on the walls. The apartments
are not what you'd expect, they are neat
as pins, and to enter them

is to endure that brief, accidental pain.
They are proud of everything, the divorced men,
proud of the clean white microwave,

the CD player with its growing audience of disks,
the futon that bears the furrow of their sleep
upon its back. They will show you

the photographs of their children when they were young,
stepping from the doors of miniature cars,
pajama bottoms on backwards, or give you

a full tour of the kitchen cabinets, each of which holds
an item or two of use. And when it is time
for you to leave, they will follow you

to the top of the stairs, the door,
and stand there while you drive away,
their faces behind the wood, the glass—

looking like the faces that you've seen
in all the papers: the proud, pained soldiers torn
from their homes and sent out into the world
for a reason you must read on and on to understand.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Wilhelm Karl Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1786). He's famous for collecting and translating children's stories and folktales, along with his brother Jakob, and these were put together in Children's and Household Tales (1812), and would come to be known as the Grimm's Fairy Tales.

All volumes published after 1819 were handled only by Wilhelm Grimm, and the books were the most widely read in the world next to the Bible. The brothers collected the stories by listening to storytellers and trying to write down the tales using the same techniques and words as the speakers. The tales they recorded included "Little Red Riding Hood," "Sleeping Beauty," "Snow White," and "Hansel and Gretel." Their recording methods also established a scientific approach to documenting folklore.

Their personal libraries held over 7,000 books and papers from all different kinds of subjects. The brothers had been working on a huge historical dictionary, but Wilhelm died in 1859 before finishing his entries for the letter D. His brother Jakob died four years after him, and he only got as far as the letter F. The dictionary was eventually finished many years later by other researchers.

It is the birthday of poet and short story writer Weldon Kees, born in Beatrice, Nebraska (1914). He was also a painter, and he had one-man exhibits in New York City. He's best known for his Collected Poems (1960), which was put together and edited by the poet Donald Justice, and which came out five years after Kees's mysterious disappearance and presumed death.

Kees disappeared on July 18, 1955. His car was found abandoned on a road that went on to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. He had divorced his wife, Ann Swan, in 1952, and what would end up being his final book, Poems 1947-1954 (1954), had just been published. Right before his disappearance, he had told some of his friends that he wanted to start a new life in Mexico, but he also suggested that he was thinking of killing himself. The car was the only sign of him, and no one ever saw him again.

Kees's collection of fiction, Ceremony and Other Stories, came out in 1983, almost 30 years after he disappeared. But he published more than thirty short stories between 1934 and 1945 in many midwestern literary magazines. Many of these came out while he was still in college. He turned to writing mainly poetry in 1937, after his first published poem came out in Signatures.

He ended up in San Francisco in 1951, where he became a jazz pianist and composer. He wrote the music for an experimental film called The Adventures of Johnny, and he made some films himself. He also illustrated a book called Non-Verbal Communication (1956) with hundreds of his own still photographs. Donald Justice has called Kees "one of the bitterest poets in history."

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and short story writer Maxine Chernoff, born in Chicago, Illinois (1952). Her best-known work includes the short story collection Signs of Devotion (1993), and the novels American Heaven (1996) and Boy in Winter (1999).

When Maxine Chernoff was growing up, her mother was repeatedly hospitalized for clinical depression and sometimes given shock therapy, and Chernoff turned to books to escape from her mother's absence. She writes, "I would often come home from school and read whatever books were available to me. I read everything from politics to spy novels to popular condensations of novels that my parents ordered from Readers Digest. Reading was a comfort and an escape, and I was a serious reader years before I became a writer."

She grew up in a bilingual home, and her grandmother lived with them. Her grandmother had gone deaf when she was a child in Russia, and so she only spoke Yiddish. Chernoff's grandmother was also a poet, and several of her poems had been published in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Chernoff graduated early from high school and started college at 16. She entered as a political science major, but she never took one political science class. She switched to English after taking an Introduction to Literature course in fiction and drama. She started working on her own poems her junior year of college. She says, "I would even pull over in my car to write a poem in my first few years of writing poetry."

Chernoff and her husband, the poet Paul Hoover, edit New American Writing, a literary journal. She started off as an assistant editor, and the magazine was originally called Oink!. After a while the other editors dropped out, and they changed the name to New American Writing. The name change made their circulation go up to 6,000 copies.

It's the birthday of Irish novelist George Augustus Moore, born Ballyglass, Ireland (1852). He's known for introducing Realist fiction to England with his book Esther Waters (1894). He also wrote confessions and memoirs, such as the Hail and Farewell trilogy (1911-14) and Confessions of a Young Man (1888).

His father was a member of Parliament and owned racehorses. He had wanted Moore to become a military man, but after his father died in 1870, Moore inherited some money and was free to move to Paris and live out his life as an artist. Moore said growing up he was "the boy that no schoolmaster wants." He said, "A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it."

Up until 1876, Moore had planned on being a painter, and he studied at French art academies. He was good, but not good enough. He once said, "The lot of critics is to be remembered by what they failed to understand." Moore decided to educate himself by reading as much as he could, especially philosophy, while sitting in Paris cafés. He had to leave Paris for Ireland when his father's estate went into financial ruin, but the money problems taught him a lot about business and politics.

He would eventually become very anti-British in his views and he became more active in the Irish Revival. He worked with Yeats and the early days of the Abbey Theater. He also focused on bringing back the popularity of the Gaelic language.

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