Aug. 19, 2005


by Nan Cohen

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Poem: "Girder" by Nan Cohen, from Rope Bridge. © Cherry Grove Collection. Reprinted with permission.


The simplest of bridges, a promise
that you will go forward,

that you can come back.
So you cross over.

It says you can come back.
So you go forward.

But even if you come back
then you must go forward.

I am always either going back
or coming forward. There is always

something I have to carry,
something I leave behind.

I am a figure in a logic problem,
standing on one shore

with the things I cannot leave,
looking across at what I cannot have.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Ogden Nash, born in Rye, New York (1902). He wrote "To keep your marriage brimming, / With love in the loving cup, / Whenever you're wrong, admit it; / Whenever you're right, shut up."

It's the birthday of fashion designer (Gabrielle) Coco Chanel, born in Saumur, France (1883). Along with the perfume Chanel No. 5, which came out in 1922, she introduced turtleneck sweaters, trench coats, costume jewelry, bell-bottom trousers, bobbed hair, and the "little black dress."

Chanel said, "I invented my life by taking for granted that everything I did not like would have an opposite, which I would like."

It's the birthday of the memoirist Frank McCourt, born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the first of seven children born to two Irish immigrants. He lived for a few years in New York City, as his father struggled to hold onto a job, but after his younger sister died, the family decided to return to Ireland. They settled in a tiny Irish town called Limerick.

McCourt's father was an alcoholic, who got fired from his jobs again and again, and managed to spend all of his meager income at the pub. McCourt grew up wearing tattered clothing and shoes that had been resoled with scraps of old tires. His family's home had neither a bathroom nor electricity. He and his siblings slept every night in bed with their parents on a flea infested mattress. For most meals, all they had was tea and bread. McCourt's mother said that tea and bread was a balanced meal, because it contained a liquid and a solid.

Two of McCourt's brothers died of disease and malnutrition. McCourt was ten years old when he caught typhoid fever. He had to spend a week in the hospital, and he was shocked to find that the hospital was a kind of paradise. It was the first time he could remember that he got three square meals a day, the first time he had slept between real bed sheets, and it was also the first time that he had free access to books. He read Shakespeare in the hospital, and fell in love with literature. From that day forward, he would borrow books wherever he could find them, and since his house had no electricity, he would read at night on the street, standing under a streetlamp.

McCourt eventually saved enough money to buy a ticket on a boat to New York City. He served in the Korean War and went to college on the GI Bill. He became a high school English teacher, and taught in the New York City public schools for 18 years.

For years he tried to write about his experiences growing up in Ireland, but he found he was too angry to write anything worth reading. Then, one day, he was listening to the way his granddaughter used language, and he suddenly realized that the key to writing his book would be to write it in the voice of a child. A few days later, McCourt opened up a notebook and wrote the words, "I'm in a playground on Classon Avenue in Brooklyn with my brother, Malachy. He's two, I'm three. We're on the seesaw." It was his earliest memory, and it became one of the first scenes in what would become his memoir, Angela's Ashes.

The book came out in 1996. The publisher printed a modest run of 27,000 copies, and McCourt himself said he was just pleased to have published a book at all. But the book caught on through word-of-mouth, and McCourt's public readings were immensely popular, and then the book won the Pulitzer Prize. It eventually spent two years on the New York Times best-seller list, becoming one of the most popular memoirs ever written.

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