Apr. 11, 2005

What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know

by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

MONDAY, 11 APRIL, 2005
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Poem: "What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know" by Alicia Suskin Astriker, from No Heaven. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

What You Cannot Remember, What You Cannot Know
    -for Abigail

When you were two you used to say
I can do it all by myself, then when you were three
You had tantrums, essentially
Because you wanted to go back and be a baby like before,
And also to be a grownup.
It was perplexing,
It was a mini-rehearsal
For adolescence, which lurks inside your body
Now that you are almost nine,
Like a duplicate baby, an angel
Or alien, we don't know which,
Forceful and intelligent and weird,
Playing with the controls.
Fetal eyes blinking, non-negotiable demands
Like Coke bubbles overflowing a glass,
It strengthens and grows.
When you read it stares through your eyes,
It vibrates when you practice piano,
The cotton dresses hang in your closet
Like conspirators, wavering in its breeze.
We watch you turn inward, your hair
Falls over your face like a veil that hides whatever
You would rather others don't know,
You lean your head listening
For its keen highstrung melancholy voice.
Here comes the gypsy caravan,
Ding-a-ling, the icecream man,
Plenty of glee and woe up the road.
We would do anything for you,
Sweetie, but we can do nothing—
You have to do it all by yourself.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of religious poet Christopher Smart, born in Shipbourne, Kent, England (1722). He was a teacher of philosophy at Cambridge when he started entering the school's annual poetry contest for poems about the "perfections or attributes of the Supreme Being." He won the contest the first time he entered, and went on to win it five years in a row. He lost his job as a teacher, so he moved to London and supported himself writing freelance light verse for magazines and advertisements under pennames such as Ebenezer Pentweazle and Mary Midnight. He became friends with writers such as Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.

Then, in the late 1750's, he began to suffer from a religious mania, which caused him to pray so obsessively that he was unable to do anything else. He was committed to St. Luke's Hospital for Lunatics, and it was there that he wrote his two masterpieces. The first was A Song to David (1763) about King David and the Biblical psalms attributed to him. The second masterpiece was called Jubilate Agno, written around 1763, which went on for hundreds of pages, in which Smart attempted to praise God for every single aspect of his life.

In several passages Christopher Smart praised god for the many wonderful aspects of his cat, Jeoffry. He wrote,

"For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him...
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat...
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped...
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity."

It's the birthday of poet Mark Strand, born in Summerside, Canada (1934). He spent his early childhood on Canada's Prince Edward Island, but his father worked as a salesman, the family had to move to a series of cities across the United States. He originally wanted to be a painter, but when he went to Yale for graduate school he got much more praise for his writing than his painting. He said, "You don't choose to become something like a poet. You write and you write, and the years go by, and you are a poet."

He made a name for himself with his first two books of poetry Sleeping with One Eye Open (1964) and Reasons for Moving (1968), books full of dark, dream-like poems about people digging tunnels in their front yards and mailmen arriving at the door in the middle of the night.

He became the fourth national Poet Laureate in 1990, and he received dozens of angry letters when he announced that he would not write any poems for national public figures, even if the president's dog died. He said, "On the death of my own dog—if I had a dog—I'd be quite capable of writing about her demise. But the President's life is so detached from mine, it would be hard for me to internalize it."

He has since gone on to write more autobiographical poetry in books such as Dark Harbor (1993) and Blizzard of One (1998) which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Chicken, Shadow, Moon & More (2000), which includes his drawings.

It's the birthday of Glenway Wescott, born in Kewashkum, Wisconsin (1901). He grew up in a rural farming community and never got along with his father, who was always challenging his manhood. He ran away from home when he was 13 and moved in with relatives. For the next 20 years of his life, he moved further and further way from home to Chicago, New Mexico, and New York. But all the while he was moving away, he kept writing about his hometown in novels such as Apple of the Eye (1924) The Grandmothers (1927), and the collection of short stories Good-Bye Wisconsin (1928).

He moved to Europe just before the stock market crash of 1929, and he joined the community of expatriate writers in Paris. It took him 10 years to write The Pilgrim Hawk (1940), a short novel about expatriates that takes place on a single afternoon. It was hailed as a masterpiece. At the time, he was considered one of the best American writers of his generation, on par with Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield. But though he lived for almost 50 more years, he never published another serious work of fiction, and his work was mostly forgotten. Susan Sontag helped spark a renewed interest in his work when she wrote about The Pilgrim Hawk in the New Yorker magazine. That novel was just brought back into print in 2001.

Glenway Wescott once said that he wished he had written about the amazing things he had seen in his life: religious fanatics, beheadings, riots, wars. But he said, "I must subject matter is not so sensational. Roughly speaking, it is the private life: the education of the young, the religion of the old, love-affairs, and death-beds."

It's the birthday of humorist Leo Rosten, born in Lodz, Poland (1908). As a teenager, he tutored his parents in their English classes, and he fell in love with the way they and their friends used language.

While working on his Ph.D. in political science, he had taught English classes to immigrants like his parents, and one of his favorite students was a man named Hyman Kaplan, who used English more creatively than anyone he had ever met.

Years later, after he got a job in government, his wife came down with appendicitis and pneumonia. To pay his medical bills he began to write humorous stories based on his memories of that student, and the stories were collected in his book The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), which became a best-seller. At the time, none of his academic friends knew that he had been writing humorous stories. He said, "I was now branded a humorist, and every time I opened my mouth there would be gales of laughter."

His great masterpiece was The Joys of Yiddish (1968): a book about the Yiddish language. Rosten said, "It illustrates how beautifully a language reflects the variety and vitality of life itself; and how the special culture of the Jews, their distinctive style of thought, their subtleties of feeling, are reflected in Yiddish; and how this in turn has enhanced and enriched the English we use today."

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