Jan. 24, 2006

Street Moths

by X. J. Kennedy

(RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Street Moths," by X.J. Kennedy from The Lords of Misrule (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Street Moths

Mature enough to smoke but not to drink,
    Grown boys at night before the games arcade
Wearing tattoos that wash off in the sink
    Accelerate vain efforts to get laid.

Parading in formation past them, short
    Skirts and tight jeans pretending not to see
This pack of starving wolves who pay them court
    Turn noses up at cries of agony—

Baby, let's do it! Each suggestion falls
    Dead to the gutter to be swept aside
Like some presumptuous bug that hits brick walls,
    Rating a mere Get lost and death-ray eyes.

Still, they keep launching blundering campaigns,
    Trying their wings once more in hopeless flight:
Blind moths against the wires of window screens.
    Anything. Anything for a fix of light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Edith Wharton, born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City (1862). She belonged to an aristocratic ship-owning and real estate family, connected to the cultured high society of New York City. Wharton wrote her first novel when she was eleven years old. She wrote: "It was on a bright day of midwinter, in New York. The little girl who eventually became me, but as yet was neither me nor anybody else in particular, but merely a soft anonymous morsel of humanity—this little girl, who bore my name, was going for a walk with her father ... I date the birth of her identity from that day ... It was always an event in the little girl's life to take a walk with her father, and more particularly so today, because she had on her new winter bonnet ... The little girl and her father walked up Fifth Avenue ... On Sundays after church the fashionable of various denominations paraded there on foot, in gathered satin bonnets and tall hats."

She never got along with her mother, who taught Wharton that lying was a sin, but who often punished her for telling the truth. Wharton puzzled over this contradiction for most of her life and wrote about characters who cannot reveal the truth about themselves because of the society in which they live.

She married young, enduring a proper but loveless marriage to banker Edward Robbins Wharton for 28 years. He suffered from mental illness, and the story is she was in love with another man named Walter Berry, whose large photo she kept on her mantelpiece next to the photo of her husband. The novels she is most remembered for are about frustrated love, such as Ethan Frome (1911) and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald she wrote, "To your generation, I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers." She invited Fitzgerald to a tea party in Paris soon after The Great Gatsby was published. The meeting of the two has become a literary legend. In one version of the story, Fitzgerald arrived drunk, and after a few minutes of sipping tea he stood and told a story about an American couple who mistakenly stayed at a Paris bordello, thinking it a hotel. He stopped in the middle of the story, expecting his hostess to be shocked. Edith Wharton refilled his teacup and said, "But Mr. Fitzgerald, you haven't told us what they did in the bordello." She was, after all, a novelist.

It's the birthday of British zoologist and writer, Desmond Morris, born in Wiltshire, England (1928), who got his Doctorate of Philosophy degree at Oxford University for his doctoral thesis on the Reproductive Behavior of the Ten-spined Stickleback. He once said, "We may prefer to think of ourselves as fallen angels, but in reality we are risen apes."

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