Jun. 30, 2005

The Phenomenology of Shopping

by Alison Hawthorne Deming

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Poem: "The Phenomenology of Shopping" by Alison Hawthorne Deming, from Genius Loci. © Penguin Poets. Reprinted with permission.

The Phenomenology of Shopping

Fax it to me he said and
I said I will though it meant
since I was living in a cabin
on the coast driving to town and
chatting with the innkeeper
for an hour because that is
the neighborly rhythm
of a small town and since
I had already disrupted
the quiet of my day I drove on
to the city to check out
the outlets and buy pasta
and wine—a fine Valpolicella
so cheap I bought three—
and listened on the long drive
home to the radio telling me
how many pounds of dump space
I would save each year
if I used less stuff—comics
for Christmas wrap, mixing
frozen juice in a pitcher
instead of buying it in glass—
and I scanned the bags beside me
that had grown like spores
in the petri dish of my car and
felt as if I'd no hand in their
multiplying and asked myself
in disgust, "Who's driving this car?"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Ann Taylor, born in Islington, England (1782). She wrote "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

It's the birthday of the poet and playwright John Gay, born in Barnstaple, England (1685). He is best known for his play The Beggar's Opera, first performed in 1728. It ran for 62 performances, a big hit at the time. It was a story of thieves and highwaymen. In 1928, it was adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill into The Threepenny Opera, which is still performed today.

It was on this day in 1857 that Charles Dickens gave his first public reading. He liked to perform in public, he could make good money at it, and it got him away from home and from his wife. His first reading was of A Christmas Carol.

It's the birthday of the poet Czeslaw Milosz, born in Szetejnie, Lithuania (1911). He grew up in a Polish-speaking family. He studied law rather than literature, but co-founded a literary group in 1931. The group was so pessimistic about the future, it was nicknamed the "Catastrophists." They predicted a coming world war, though nobody believed them.

Czeslaw Milosz wrote anti-Nazi poetry after the invasion of Poland in 1939. He witnessed the genocide of the Jews in Warsaw. He was one of the first poets to write about it in his book Rescue in 1945.

After the war, he got a job as a diplomat for communist Poland, though he was not a member of the communist party. One night, in the winter of 1949, on his way home from a government meeting, he saw jeeps filled with political prisoners, surrounded by soldiers. He said, "It was then that I realized what I was part of." He defected two years later and went to Paris.

Most intellectuals in Paris were pro-communist at the time. They thought of Milosz as a traitor. The poet Pablo Neruda attacked him. In 1953, Milosz published a book about communism called The Captive Mind. He moved to the United States and started teaching at Berkley in 1960. He had mixed feelings about the United States. He kept writing poetry in Polish, although almost nobody was reading it. His books had been banned in Poland, and his poems weren't translated into English until years later. In 1980, he got a phone call at three in the morning telling him that he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was Czeslaw Milosz who said, "Language is the only homeland."

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