Nov. 10, 2005


by Cathy Smith Bowers

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Poem: "Groceries" by Cathy Smith Bowers from Traveling in Time of Danger© Iris Press. Reprinted with permission.


I had a boyfriend once, after my mother
and brothers and sisters and I
fled my father's house, who worked
at the Piggly Wiggly where he stocked
shelves on Fridays until midnight
then drove to my house to sneak me out,
take me down to the tracks by the cotton mill
where he lifted me and the quilt I brought
into an empty boxcar. All night
the wild thunder of looms. The roar of trains
passing on adjacent tracks, hauling
their difficult cargo, cotton bales
or rolls of muslin on their way
to the bleachery to be whitened, patterned
into stripes and checks, into still-life gardens
of wisteria and rose. And when the whistle
signaled third shift free, he would lift me
down again onto the gravel and take me home.
If my mother ever knew, she didn't say, so glad
in her new freedom, so grateful for the bags
of damaged goods stolen from the stockroom
and left on our kitchen table. Slashed
bags of rice and beans he had bandaged
with masking tape, the labelless cans,
the cereals and detergents in varying
stages of destruction. Plenty
to get us through the week, and even some plums
and cherries, tender and delicious,
still whole inside the mutilated cans
and floating in their own sweet juice.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther, born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483), which is now located in Germany. He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. Between the years of 1516 to 1546, he published an article on religion every other week, totaling more than sixty thousand pages. It has been estimated that during his writing life, his published writings made up twenty percent of all the literature being published in Germany at the time.

In addition to his own writing, Luther spent much of his late life working on a translation of the Bible into German. There had been a few German translations before his, but they were purely literal translations. He said, "[The translator] must ask the mother at home, children in the street, the common man in the market and look them in the mouth, and listen to how they speak, then translate accordingly."

It's the birthday of American novelist John Phillips Marquand, born in Wilmington, Delaware (1893). He came from a distinguished family of governors, shipbuilders, and sea captains. As a boy, his father was a wealthy stockbroker, but the panic of 1907 bankrupted him. Marquand was sent to live with his aunts, and he was the first member of his family to go to public instead of private school.

He got into Harvard on a scholarship, but he was always ashamed of his family's financial troubles, and it made him acutely aware of the struggle for social status among the upper class. After college he wrote ad copy about soap and underwear and rubber heeled shoes, until he had saved up enough money to take a year off to write a novel. The result was a historical novel called The Unspeakable Gentleman (1922), which he sold as a serial to the Ladies Home Journal.

At the time, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country was the fiction published in magazines, and between 1921 and 1931, John P. Marquand published five serial novels and fifty-nine short stories in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. Most of the stories were about romantic adventures in exotic foreign countries, and they were so popular that Marquand became the most highly paid author in the country.

Marquand's most popular novels of the 1930's were those featuring a Japanese agent named Mr. Moto, who speaks perfect English, has gold fillings in his teeth, is proficient with firearms and jujitsu, but whose most formidable weapon is his unfailing politeness. Marquand wrote six Moto novels, including Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) and Mr. Moto Is So Sorry (1938), but the character lost much of his appeal after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

At the same time that Marquand was cranking out his novels of adventure and intrigue, he became fascinated by a series of biographies of supposedly prominent New England men that were quite popular at the time. Marquand thought these boring biographies of self-important upper-class New Englanders were absurd, so he decided to write a satirical fictionalized version. The result was his book The Late George Apley (1937), narrated by the smug and evasive fictional biographer Horatio Willing.

It was Marquand's first serious novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He followed it with several more novels of manners, including Wickford Point (1939), and Point of No Return (1949).

It's the birthday of the poet Vachel Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois (1879). His parents wanted him to become a doctor, but he dropped out of medical school after three years and tried to make a living drawing pictures and writing poetry. After struggling for several years, and working for a time in the toy department of Marshall Fields, he decided to walk across the United States, trading his poems and pictures for food and shelter along the way.

Then in 1913 Poetry magazine published Lindsay's poem "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," and it was a big hit. He became one of the leaders of the movement to revive poetry as an oral art form, and he spent much of the rest of his life traveling around the country, reciting his work for audiences. He went on to write many collections of poetry for adults and children, including Rhymes To Be Traded for Bread (1912), The Congo and Other Poems (1914), and The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems (1917).

It's the birthday of Karl Shapiro, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1913). He became famous at an early age for his poems about World War II. His collection of war poetry V-Letter and Other Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. He spent the rest of his career trying to prove that he was more than a war poet. When other poets were disgusted by the modern world, he wrote poems celebrating things like Buicks, drug stores, and Hollywood.

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