Mar. 3, 2005

What the Uneducated Woman Told Me

by Christopher Reid

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Poem: "What the Uneducated Old Woman Told Me" by Christopher Reid, from Katerine Brac. © Faber & Faber. Reprinted with permission.

What the Uneducated Old Woman Told Me

That she was glad to sit down.
That her legs hurt in spite of the medicine.
That times were bad.
That her husband had died nearly thirty years before.
That the war had changed things.
That the new priest looked like a schoolboy and you could barely
     hear him in church.
That pigs were better company, generally speaking, than goats.
That no one could fool her.
That both her sons had married stupid women.
That her son-in-law drove a truck.
That he had once delivered something to the President's palace.
That his flat was on the seventh floor and that it made her dizzy to
     think of it.
That he brought her presents from the black market.
That an alarm clock was of no use to her.
That she could no longer walk to town and back.
That all her friends were dead.
That I should be careful about mushrooms.
That ghosts never came to a house where a sprig of rosemary had
     been hung.
That the cinema was a ridiculous invention.
That the modern dances were no good.
That her husband had had a beautiful singing voice, until drink
     ruined it.
That the war had changed things.
That she had seen on a map where the war had been fought.
That Hitler was definitely in Hell right now.
That children were cheekier than ever.
That it was going to be a cold winter, you could tell from the height
     of the birds' nests.
That even salt was expensive these days.
That she had had a long life and was not afraid of dying.
That times were very bad.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France. In 1872, Georges Bizet wrote to a friend, "I am asked to write three acts for the Opéra-Comique [...] It will be bright, but of a brightness that allows style."

When it premiered, the audience was shocked by the characters of Carmen, a gypsy girl, and her lover, Don José. It's set in an exotic Spain among gypsies and bullfighters. One element that surprised audiences was that the heroine smokes on stage, something considered less than proper then. Carmen's debut was not a failure, although some history books have portrayed it that way. The opera ran for 37 performances even though it came out late in the season, and it came back the next season, too.

Nietzsche heard Carmen twenty different times, and thought of it as a musical masterpiece. Tchaikovsky first heard Carmen in 1880. Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut. He was worn out from rehearsals. Carmen is still the most popular French opera of the 19th century.

It's the birthday of the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1847). The telephone's invention was actually an accident that came about when Bell was trying to perfect the telegraph.

Alexander Graham Bell said, "When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."

It's the birthday of English poet and novelist Edward Thomas, born in London (1878). He's best known for using natural word choices and colloquial speech rhythms in metric verse, a style he worked on with Robert Frost. The two poets became friends in 1913, while Frost was in England.

Thomas had written a positive review of Frost's first poetry collection, and Frost encouraged Thomas to write his own poetry. Frost described Thomas as "the only brother I ever had." It took him a while before he followed Frost's advice, but Thomas started writing poetry in December of 1914.

Edward Thomas wrote mostly about nature and solitude even though many of his contemporaries and their writing were preoccupied with World War I. One critic said Edward Thomas's poetry was "The last body of work to seek to define a rural concept of beauty that was finally invalidated by the First World War." Thomas enlisted in July of 1915, and he was sent to fight in 1917. He was killed in the first hour of the Battle of Arras, just 28 months after he started writing. He had written 143 poems.

Edward Thomas wrote, "There is not any book / Or face of dearest look / That I would not turn from now / To go into the unknown / I must enter, and leave, alone, / I know not how."

It's the birthday of British philosopher and novelist William Godwin, born in Cambridgeshire (1756). He started off as a minister but started writing when his extreme beliefs made him fall out of favor with his congregation. He'd eventually become an atheist. His most important book was Political Justice (1793), but this was only one of the defining pieces of his literary career. He's best known as the father of Mary Godwin, who would go on to marry and become Mary Shelley, and write Frankenstein.

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