Mar. 8, 2005

Day Bath

by Debra Spencer

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Day Bath" by Debra Spencer, from Pomegranate. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission.

Day Bath
    for my son

Last night I walked him back and forth,
his small head heavy against my chest,
round eyes watching me in the dark,
his body a sandbag in my arms.
I longed for sleep but couldn't bear his crying
so bore him back and forth until the sun rose
and he slept. Now the doors are open,
noon sunlight coming in,
and I can see fuchsias opening.
Now we bathe. I hold him, the soap
makes our skins glide past each other.
I lay him wet on my thighs, his head on my knees,
his feet dancing against my chest,
and I rinse him, pouring water
from my cupped hand.
No matter how I feel, he's the same,
eyes expectant, mouth ready,
with his fat legs and arms,
his belly, his small solid back.
Last night I wanted nothing more
than to get him out of my arms.
Today he fits neatly
along the hollow my thighs make,
and with his fragrant skin against mine
I feel brash, like a sunflower.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, born in Newark, New Jersey (1917). He's best known for his book Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). He believed that the great theme of American literature was the search for identity. He said, "Americans have no real identity. We're all... uprooted people who come from elsewhere."

Fiedler spent most of his life struggling with his own identity. His father was a pharmacist and an atheist. Fiedler went to Hebrew school behind his father's back, but he said, "I stubbornly resisted learning Hebrew—spending most of my lesson time haranguing the rabbi... trying to explain to him why all religions were the opium of the people. To all of this he would retort only that I read Hebrew like a Cossack, which was, alas, true."

During his teens, he wanted to be a Marxist revolutionary, but he eventually lost his idealism. During World War II, he served as an interrogator of Japanese prisoners of War, and before the war was over, he felt closer to many of the Japanese prisoners than he was to most of his fellow soldiers.

When he got back to the states, he studied literature and began writing fiction. His stories were usually rejected from magazines, but the editors started asking him to write book reviews, and that's how he became a critic. He made a name for himself in the academic world when he wrote the hugely controversial 1948 essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" in which he argued that Huckleberry Finn and Jim the slave were in love with each other. Fiedler was one of the first American critics to argue in favor of popular culture. He loved comic books and horror movies and soap operas, and he once said that the only writer of the late 20th century who would be remembered was Stephen King.

Though he made his living for most of his life as a professor of literature, he said, "I never had any interest, really, in being a teacher... It's a mistake to teach literature at all, I think: the student doesn't have a sense of discovery about it. You have to teach it as if you weren't teaching it."

He died in 2003. His last book was Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology & Myth (1996).

It's the birthday of essayist and children's author Kenneth Grahame, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859), known today for his book The Wind in the Willows (1908), which began as a series of stories he told to his young son.

Grahame had a difficult life. His mother died when he was five years old, and he was passed around among relatives in England. He wanted to go to college, but his uncle refused to pay for it, so he got a job as a clerk at a bank. He began writing essays and stories on the side, and in 1895, he published two books of stories about children: The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days (1898), which were very popular in England and the United States.

But when he wrote The Wind in the Willows, many publishers turned it down because the idea of talking animals was too fantastic. At the time, Victorian educators believed that children should be discouraged as soon as possible from pretending and daydreaming, that letting children believe in fairy tales and myths was detrimental to their development. Grahame believed the opposite.

It was finally Teddy Roosevelt, a huge fan of Grahame's early work, who convinced a publisher to take on The Wind in the Willows. It became such a success that Grahame was able to retire from the Bank of England and move to the country. He lived for another 25 years, but he never wrote another book.

The Wind in the Willows still sells about 80,000 copies a year.

It's the birthday of writer John McPhee, born in Princeton, New Jersey (1931), and considered one of the greatest living literary journalists. He is known for the huge range of his subjects. He has written about canoes, geology, tennis, nuclear energy, and the Swiss army. He once researched his own family tree and traced it back to a Scotsman who moved to Ohio to become a coalminer.

As a high-school student, McPhee played a lot of sports, especially basketball. His English teacher required her students to write three compositions a week, each accompanied by a detailed outline, and many of which the students had to read out loud to the class. Since then, McPhee has carefully outlined all his written work, and has read out loud to his wife every sentence he writes before it is published.

In college, McPhee was a regular contestant on a weekly radio and television program called "Twenty Questions," which he believes taught him to gather facts and guess at their hidden meanings. His goal as a young writer was to write for the New Yorker, but it took 14 years of being rejected before he published his first article there. During those years, he said, "I tried everything, sometimes with hilarious results. I think that young writers have to roll around like oranges on a conveyor belt. They have to try it all."

In 1962, he got a phone call from his father about an amazing new college basketball player at Princeton. McPhee went to see him play and decided to write a profile of the young man, whose name was Bill Bradley. The profile was published in the New Yorker, which invited McPhee to be a staff writer, and the profile became McPhee's first book: A Sense of Where You Are (1965).

He went on to become one of the foremost journalists for the New Yorker. His name in the table of contents would actually increase the sales of that issue of the magazine. Then, in the early 1980's, he decided to write a geological history of the United States, based on the roadcuts carved out for Interstate 80. William Shawn wasn't sure readers would be interested in that particular subject, but McPhee didn't care. He spent almost 20 years writing about geology, and in 1999, he won his first Pulitzer Prize for his book Annals of the Former World (1998).

McPhee has published more than 25 books, even though he rarely writes more than 500 words a day. He once tried tying himself to a chair to force himself to write more, but it didn't work. He said, "People say to me, 'Oh, you're so prolific.' God, it doesn't feel like it—nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart."

When asked what he writes about, McPhee said, "I'm describing people engaged in their thing, their activity, whatever it is."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show