Jun. 7, 2005

Life's Work

by Maxine Kumin

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Poem: "Life's Work" by Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems. © W.W. Norton. Reprinted with permission.

Life's Work

Mother my good girl
I remember this old story:
you fresh out of the Conservatory
at eighteen a Bach specialist
in a starched shirtwaist
begging permission to go on tour
with the nimble violinist you were
never to accompany and he
flinging his music down
the rosin from his bow
flaking line by line
like grace notes on the treble clef
and my grandfather
that estimable man I never met
scrubbing your mouth with a handkerchief
saying no daughter of mine
tearing loose the gold locket
you wore with no one's picture in it
and the whole German house on 15th Street
at righteous whiteheat...

At eighteen I chose to be a swimmer.
My long hair dripped through dinner
onto the china plate.
My fingers wrinkled like Sunsweet
yellow raisins from the afternoon workout.
My mouth chewed but I was doing laps.
I entered the water like a knife.
I was all muscle and seven doors.
A frog on the turning board.
King of the Eels and the Eel's wife.
I swallowed and prayed
to be allowed to join the Aquacade
and my perfect daddy
who carried you off to elope
after the fingerboard snapped
and the violinist lost his case
my daddy wearing gravy on his face
swore on the carrots and the boiled beef
that I would come to nothing
that I would come to grief...

Well, the firm old fathers are dead
and I didn't come to grief.
I came to words instead
to tell the little tale that's left:
the midnights of my childhood still go on.
The stairs speak again under your foot.
The heavy parlor door folds shut
and "Clair de Lune"
puckers from the obedient keys
plain as a schoolroom clock ticking
and what I hear more clearly than Debussy's
lovesong is the dry aftersound
of your long nails clicking.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). Her father was of German descent, her mother a Chippewa Indian. She grew up in North Dakota, where her parents were both teachers at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

She studied creative writing at Dartmouth. After college, she decided not to go into teaching as she had planned. Instead, she wrote poetry, and supported herself hoeing sugar beets, picking cucumbers, babysitting, life guarding, selling fried chicken, waitressing and short order cooking. She was even once a girl with a flag at a construction site on the highway.

She switched from poetry to fiction. One of her first short stories began to grow in her mind and became her first novel Love Medicine, about two Indian families, the Kashpaws and the Lamartines. She created those two families and then went on to write several more novels about them and their imaginary reservation in North Dakota, including The Beet Queen, The Bingo Palace, Tracks, and others.

Louise Erdrich said, "Writing became a way for me to talk about myself—or a character—in a really personal, surprising manner without any embarrassment. I was brought up to be an incredibly nice person, but not everything I wanted to say was nice."

It's the birthday of the linguist Deborah Tannen, born in Brooklyn (1945). She caught the mumps when she was a kid, which damaged her hearing, and she compensated for this hearing loss by paying very close attention to the way people talked. She was drawn into linguistics as a study and wrote her book, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was a best-seller in 1990.

Deborah Tannen said, "Saying that men talk about baseball in order to avoid talking about their feelings is the same as saying that women talk about their feelings in order to avoid talking about baseball."

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