Oct. 16, 2005

One Hundredth Birthday

by Kim Bridgford

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Poem: "One Hundredth Birthday" by Kim Bridgford from Instead of Maps. © David Robert Books. Reprinted with permission.

One Hundredth Birthday

Your birthdays now are lit with irony,
And years build up like tombstones on the cake.
You use one candle for simplicity.

Anticipation mixes with an ache
That makes you wonder how you got this far,
And when. At thirty, things became a blur,
And then the weary nonsense of the rest.
One hundredth birthday bash! It's a mistake,
You say, and they count out for you, alike,
With rapid fingers all your days. No test:
You can't believe you are three numbers strong.

You've become a span of time where people go
To reevaluate where man went wrong.
Time's diplomat, you smile, and then you blow.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid of 1859, in which the abolitionist John Brown, leading a group of seventeen whites and five blacks, attacked the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, hoping to lead an uprising of the slaves. He failed, was arrested, and was hung for his efforts.

It's the birthday of Oscar Wilde, born in Dublin (1854). His mother was a famous poet and journalist and Irish nationalist. His father was an ear and eye doctor. Oscar went to college at Oxford where he began to affect an aristocratic accent and began dressing in velvet knee breeches. He stayed in England after college and became part of a movement in art and literature called Aestheticism, whose motto was "Art for art's sake."

Oscar Wilde said, "Even a good sense of color is more important in the development of the individual than a sense of right and wrong."

He went on a big lecture tour of the United States, traveling to Des Moines, Denver, St. Paul, Houston, and Pennsylvania—just to name a few. He returned to London in 1883 and made his reputation in 1891 with his first and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, about a beautiful young man who remains young while a portrait of him grows old.

And then in the 1890s, Oscar Wilde burst on the British theater scene with four consecutive comedy hits: Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Oscar Wilde said, "There is no such thing as a romantic experience. There are romantic memories, and there is the desire of romance—that is all. I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience, and I know there is no such thing as a new experience at all. I think I would more readily die for what I do not believe in than for what I hold to be true. I would go to the stake for a sensation and be a skeptic to the last! Only one thing remains infinitely fascinating to me, the mystery of moods. Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and am not sorry that it is so."

It's the birthday of the playwright Eugene O'Neill, born in a hotel room on Broadway in New York City (1888). His father was a famous actor. The boy spent much of his childhood on trains and hotels, following his father around on tours.

He flunked out of Princeton. He got a series of odd jobs, went off gold prospecting in Honduras, was an actor in vaudeville, and wrote for a small town newspaper. He spent six months in a sanatorium recovering from TB. He began to read Ibsen and Strindberg and then to write plays: Anna Christie in 1922, Strange Interlude soon after, and Long Day's Journey into Night, which was produced posthumously.

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