Feb. 20, 2006

A Wake

by Malena Morling

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Poem: "A Wake" by Malena Morling from Astoria. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.

A Wake

I Called Michael and he told me he just got home from a
wake. "Oh, I am sorry," I said. "No, no," he said, "it was
the best wake I have ever been to. The funeral home was
as warm and cozy as anyone's living room. We had the
greatest time. My friend looked wonderful, much better
dead than alive. He wore his red and green Hawaiian shirt.
He was the most handsome corpse I'd ever seen.
They did such a good job! His daughter was there and
a lot of old friends I had not seen in years. You know,
he drank himself to death. He'd been on and off the
wagon for years, but for some reason this is what he
ended up doing." As my friend kept talking, I thought
of Lorca and what he wrote about death and Spain: "A
dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man that any-
place else in the world" and "Everywhere else, death is
an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not
in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live
indoors until the day they die and are taken out into the

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain, born in Hoquiam, Washington (1967). He got a job as a school janitor and started playing in local rock bands, living at various friends' houses and on the street, occasionally sleeping under a bridge. He and his bandmates saved up six hundred dollars to record their first album, Bleach (1989), under the name Nirvana. The album was received well enough that they began to play live venues in nearby cities like Olympia and Seattle. They signed to a major label for their next album, Nevermind (1991), and Cobain was shocked when it sold more than 10 million copies.

He became internationally famous almost overnight. The way he dressed—in torn jeans, flannel shirts and striped sweaters—began to influence clothing designers. His abrasive music was played at high school dances and sporting events, and it changed the kind of music that got played on the radio. But Cobain hated being famous. He developed a heroin addiction that got worse and worse, and on April 5th of 1994 he committed suicide at his home in Seattle.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Robert Altman, born in Kansas City, Missouri (1925). His father was a successful insurance salesman, and a compulsive gambler. Altman said, "I learned a lot about losing from [my father]. That losing is an identity; that you can be a good loser and a bad winner; that none of it—gambling, money, winning or losing—has any real value."

Altman served during World War II as a bomber pilot and then got a job making industrial films for various corporations. He started working on television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza, but the television executives didn't like him. He always wanted important characters on his TV shows to die unexpectedly because he thought that was more realistic. He didn't think there was enough realism in television.

His first success as a Hollywood filmmaker was the movie M*A*S*H (1970). Altman has since become known for movies using large casts of characters and overlapping, improvised dialogue.

Robert Altman said, "To play it safe is not to play."

It was on this day in 1950 that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas embarked on his first reading tour of the United States. At the time, Thomas was a fairly successful poet in England, and Americans were extremely enthusiastic about his work. Thomas had always wanted to travel to America because he'd grown up in Wales watching American cowboy movies and American cartoons. The man who arranged for the reading tour picked him up at the airport, and they drove toward Manhattan. When Thomas saw the skyline he said, "I knew America would be just like this."

He was immediately put in the literary spotlight, but he claimed not to enjoy his new fame. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, he said he missed being a young unknown poet. When asked why he came to New York, Thomas said, "To continue my lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes."

The tour lasted until June, and Thomas spent that time traveling to various American universities, where he attended faculty parties and then gave readings to packed houses of several thousand listeners at each performance. Thomas had never finished college himself, and was terrified of academics. So he got terribly drunk at all the faculty parties, shouting obscenities and coming on to all the women. Everyone was shocked and horrified.

And when the time would come for Thomas to give his reading, even though he had been nearly incapacitated a few hours before, he would always come out on stage and stun the audience with his performance. He had a deep, sonorous voice, and audiences would hang on his every word. He didn't just read his own poetry. He recited a huge number of poems by other poets, and only finished the show with one or two poems of his own.

The reading tour seemed to go on and on. He traveled all the way to California and back. In letters to his wife, he complained that the tour was wearing him out. He wrote, "I'm hardly living. I'm just a voice on wheels."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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