Mar. 7, 2005

Vex Me

by Barbara Hamby

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Poem: "Vex Me" by Barbara Hamby, from Babel. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

Vex Me

Vex me, O Night, your stars stuttering like a stuck jukebox,
put a spell on me, my bones atremble at your tabernacle

of rhythm and blues. Call out your archers, chain me
to a wall, let the stone fortress of my body fall

like a rabid fox before an army of dogs. Rebuke me,
rip out my larynx like a lazy snake and feed it to the voiceless

throng. For I am midnight's girl, scouring unlit streets
like Persephone stalking her swarthy lord. Anoint me

with oil, make me greasy as a fast-food fry. Deliver me
like a pizza to the snapping crack-house hours between

one and four. Build me an ark, fill it with prairie moths,
split-winged fritillaries, blue-bottle flies. Stitch

me a gown of taffeta and quinine, starlight and nightsoil,
and when the clock tocks two, I'll be the belle of the malaria ball.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist William Boyd, born in Accra, Ghana (1952). He's the author of many novels, including A Good Man in Africa (1981) and The Blue Afternoon (1995). His most recent book is the story collection Fascination, which came out this year.

It's the birthday of novelist Bret Easton Ellis, born in Los Angeles (1964). He grew up in California, but he went to college in Vermont, as far away from California as possible. And it was there, at Bennington College, that he took a creative writing class with true crime writer Joe McGinnis, and wrote a series of stories about substance abuse and the sex lives of California teenagers.

McGinnis loved the stories and showed them to his agent, and the result was Ellis's first book, Less Than Zero (1985) which came out when he was only 21. The book became a best-seller, and Ellis went on to write many more novels, including American Psycho (1991) and Glamorama (2000).

It's the birthday of fiction and nature writer Rick Bass, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1958). He studied geology in college and started working for an oil company in Mississippi, prospecting for oil. He wrote a book about his experiences called Oil Notes (1988).

Bass and his girlfriend eventually decided that they wanted to get away from civilization, so he quit his job and they packed all their possessions into a pickup truck and drove to Montana. He said, "[We were looking for] a place of ultimate wildness, with the first yardstick of privacy: a place where you could walk around naked if you wanted to."

They wound up in the Yaak Valley, and he published a memoir of his first winter there called Winter: Notes from Montana (1991). He wrote, "I can picture getting so addicted to this valley, so dependent on it for my peace, that I become hostage to it."

He's gone on to write many books of fiction and non-fiction. His most recent novel is The Hermit's Story (2002).

On this day in 1923, Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," was published in the New Republic magazine. It was Frost's favorite of his own poems, and he called it, "My best bid for remembrance." He's remembered for many of his poems today, but that one is his best known and one of the most popular poems in American literature.

Though it's a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called "New Hampshire" (1923). He finally finished it, and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He'd never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he'd finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.

While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, "It was as if I'd had a hallucination."

He later said that he would have liked to print the poem on one page followed by "forty pages of footnotes." He once said the first two lines of the poem, "Whose woods these are, I think I know, / his house is in the village though" contained everything he ever knew about how to write.

It was on this day in 1994 that the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The case arose from a song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which used elements of the Roy Orbison song from 1964: "Oh Pretty Woman."

The Roy Orbison version of the song is about a man watching a pretty woman walking down the street. The 2 Live Crew version is about the subsequent relationship with that woman, who becomes a hairy woman, a bald-headed woman and a two-timing woman. The music publishing company Acuff-Rose, which holds the copyright for the Roy Orbison song, sued 2 Live Crew for copyright violation.

Among those who sent "friend of the court" briefs in support of 2 Live Crew were Mad Magazine, the Harvard Lampoon, and the Comedy Central TV channel. Among those who argued against 2 Live Crew were Dolly Parton and Michael Jackson. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of 2 Live Crew.

Justice David H. Souter wrote, "Like less ostensibly humorous forms of criticism, [parody] can provide social benefit by shedding light on an earlier work, and, in the process, creating a new one."

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