May 21, 2005

American Gothic

by Michelle Boisseau

SATURDAY, 21 MAY, 2005
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Poem: "American Gothic" by Michelle Boisseau from Trembling Air © University of Arkansas Press. Reprinted with permission.

American Gothic

A child started to cough and didn't last
the night. Lightning razed the barn.
The gate rotted and livestock trampled
the mustard greens. In the hallways
of rooming houses they waited their turn

for the bathtub. May I put on a light?
Pass the potatoes, please.
When our great-grandparents, the merchants,
posed at their dry-goods counters
in darned stockings and remarkable mustaches,

it hadn't been invented yet. Sure, the sisters
in the kitchen laughed till they cried,
their raw hands clutching at each other,
when the rooster perched on the parlor window
to accompany Aunt Florence in a hymn,

but their smiles floated in the moment,
mild lightning bugs, not lightning
we would learn to aim with camera,
lipstick, and dentistry. In Collier's
a tidal wave of hair, coy tilt of the head

and there it was, the Great American Smile
with a Coca-Cola. Before long the President
was walking softly, carrying a big smile.
When you're smiling, let your smile
be your umbrella, chorus lines of teeth relayed

at the Picture Show, the mascot, a cheery mouse
who sang in a tin can. Around classrooms
teachers hung big grins of construction paper:
Dare to Dream. Reach for the Stars.
Roll out the big plans for this town. Big trucks,

big backhoes forging piles of yellow clay
with snappy signage. Our greatness,
began the Senator, our greatness. He
pushed up his sleeves at a stack of pancakes
and launched a grin like a rocket ship

and jets blinked across the sky. Rain fell.
Snow covered the roads and wind worked the fields
where once in a while a farmhouse crouched,
creaking and sighing, thin windows whistling
as someone looked out, provident and hardy.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Janet Dailey, born in Storm Lake, Iowa (1944). At the age of thirty, Dailey and her husband sold their construction company and set off to see America in a trailer. In her free time, Dailey read romance novels, and soon remarked to her husband that she thought she could write one herself. With her husband's encouragement, that's just what she did. Six months later, her first book became a Harlequin romance. To her great surprise, No Quarter Asked (1976) sold more than one million copies. Her husband also came up with the idea of setting a book in each one of the fifty states, an accomplishment that put his wife in the Guinness Book of World Records.

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, editor, and teacher Robert Creeley, born in Arlington, Massachusetts (1926), whose poetry has been compared to improvisational jazz and abstract painting. In 1954, Charles Olson, then rector of the arts school, Black Mountain College, asked Creeley to edit the Black Mountain Review. Creeley later joined the faculty at the North Carolina school, and became one of the originators of the "Black Mountain" school of poetry.

It's the birthday of novelist Harold Robbins, born in New York City, New York (1916). Robbins once boasted that he never rewrote anything and never figured out his plots in advance. He said, "I start with people, and then I find out what the plot is about." He eventually sold seven hundred fifty million copies of his more than twenty books, including The Carpetbaggers (1961), The Betsy (1971), Dreams Die First (1977), and Tycoon (1997).

It's the birthday of composer, pianist, organist, and bandleader Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller, born in New York City, New York (1904), who learned to play the organ in his father's church. In 1921, Waller cut his first piano rolls and made a living playing at rent parties, movie houses, and vaudeville theaters. Waller wrote the score for the Broadway musical Hot Chocolates (1929), which contained Waller's most famous song, "Ain't Misbehavin'", performed in the show by Louis Armstrong.

"Ain't Misbehavin'" by Fats Waller

No one to walk with, all by myself.
No one to talk with, but I'm happy on the shelf.
Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you.

I know for certain the one I love.
I'm through with flirtin', it's you I'm thinking of.
Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you.

Like Jack Horner in the corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care?
Your kisses are worth waitin' for, believe me.
I don't stay out late, don't care to go.
I'm home about eight, just me and my radio.
Ain't misbehavin', I'm savin' my love for you.

It's the birthday of artist Henri Rousseau, born in Laval, France (1844), who painted stylized, fantastical images that he always believed were realistic and convincing. As a tax collector in a Paris office, Rousseau began painting as a hobby. One of his most famous paintings, The Dream, was done in 1910, shortly before his death. In the painting, a young nude woman reclines on a plush-red sofa in the middle of a jungle complete with huge flowers, two lions, and an elephant.

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