Sep. 24, 2005

Our Other Sister

by Jeffrey Harrison

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Poem: "Our Other Sister" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Feeding the Fire. © Sarabande Books. Reprinted with permission.

Our Other Sister
for Ellen

The cruelest thing I did to my younger sister
wasn't shooting a homemade blowdart into her knee,
where it dangled for a breathless second

before dropping off, but telling her we had
another, older sister who'd gone away.
What my motives were I can't recall: a whim,

or was it some need of mine to toy with loss,
to probe the ache of imaginary wounds?
But that first sentence was like a strand of DNA

that replicated itself in coiling lies
when my sister began asking her desperate questions.
I called our older sister Isabel

and gave her hazel eyes and long blonde hair.
I had her run away to California
where she took drugs and made hippie jewelry.

Before I knew it, she'd moved to Santa Fe
and opened a shop. She sent a postcard
every year or so, but she'd stopped calling.

I can still see my younger sister staring at me,
her eyes widening with desolation
then filling with tears. I can still remember

how thrilled and horrified I was
that something I'd just made up
had that kind of power, and I can still feel

the blowdart of remorse stabbing me in the heart
as I rushed to tell her none of it was true.
But it was too late. Our other sister

had already taken shape, and we could not
call her back from her life far away
or tell her how badly we missed her.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Francis Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul (1896). He was working on his first novel when he met Zelda Sayre at a military dance in Montgomery, Alabama and fell in love. He told her she looked like the heroine in his novel.

They got engaged, but her parents didn't approve because he didn't have any money, so he moved to New York and tried to publish the novel. It was rejected twice. He moved home with his parents in St. Paul to rewrite it again.

While he worked on it, Zelda wrote him letters about the men she was dating and how maybe they should break off the engagement. His novel was about a man who loses a girl because he doesn't have enough money, so he quoted lines from Zelda's letter in the book. He changed the title to This Side of Paradise.

It was accepted by Scribner in September 1919. He took a train to Montgomery. She agreed to marry him. This Side of Paradise came out in 1920, when he was just 23, and he became an overnight sensation. He and Zelda got married a week after publication at St. Patrick's in New York City.

They were the most famous literary couple of their day and perhaps any other. They were so famous that the Hearst papers had a reporter whose only job was to cover what they did. They were beautiful people. Dorothy Parker said, "Scott and Zelda looked like they'd just stepped out of the sun."

Fitzgerald wrote a play, The Vegetable, produced in 1923. It was a flop. He sailed off to France in May of 1924. He started writing a novel about a bootlegger named Jay Gatsby. He worked on it all that summer. Fitzgerald was never satisfied with it. He said, "I never at any one time saw Gatsby clear myself, for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself."

By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Fitzgerald had started to crash too. His marriage was coming apart. He was running out of money. His drinking was catching up with him. It took him nine years to write his next novel, Tender is the Night, which got mixed reviews in 1934. He died in 1940, at the age of 44, in a year in which all of his books together sold 72 copies with royalties of $13.

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