Feb. 22, 2006

Starting from Scratch

by Ingrid Wendt

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Poem: "Starting from Scratch" by Ingrid Wendt from Moving the House. © BOA Editions. Also included in the anthology Sweeping Beauty: Contemporary Women Poets Do Housework. © University of Iowa Press. Reprinted with permission.

Starting from Scratch

To begin with, none of your neighbors began here.
Everyone moved in years before you moved into
a pattern you found yourself part of
before you intended: flowers, fences,
attention to the details your mother always took care of,
duller than film on dishes it was always your job to wipe.
Nobody spoke about courage.

Nobody said you could choose this life.
It happened, it didn't, the fact
you could choose to remain would become
what's yours to control: hours
of sleeping and waking, meals, the home
you need to go out in the world from.
Neighborhood customs you know you can count on.

Recipes, grapes exchanged for zucchini, the garden
someone will know when to plant.
The book you suggest. The pattern of limits
no one has asked for, told over coffee, lives
like yours you could have become
starting from scratch. Each day
the way you will live before what comes next.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the first president of the United States, George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732). He started out his career as a successful land surveyor and farmer, and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to get back to that. He was reluctant to advocate for armed rebellion against the British, but he eventually saw that it was inevitable. He served as commander in chief of the revolutionary armies, and after the new U.S. Constitution was ratified he was the clear choice for newly created office of the president. No other candidates were even considered. Washington was elected unanimously. He was the first elected president in world history.

Washington was in an awkward position as the first president because he knew that he was helping to invent the presidency by everything he did in the office. He wrote, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."

When a Senate committee came up with an official title for him, "His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same," George Washington insisted on being called "Mr. President" instead.

Washington did believe in a certain amount of formality. He always wore a sword in public, and he never spoke casually to anyone at public events, including close friends. He didn't even shake hands; he just gave a formal bow. And he rode around New York City in a luxurious cream and gold carriage with silver-plated decorations and Washington's coat of arms on the doors, pulled by a matched set of six white horses with leopard-skin saddle blankets. When people criticized him for having such a fancy vehicle, Washington replied that it had been a gift to his wife.

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine (1892). Her mother couldn't afford to send her to college, but when she was nineteen she entered a poem called "Renascence" in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. One of the judges was so impressed that he started a correspondence with her, fell in love, and nearly divorced his wife. Her poem didn't win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.

She had red hair and green eyes and when she'd lived in Camden, Maine, people had often stopped and stared at her on the street, she was so beautiful. When Millay moved to Greenwich Village after college, most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of those smitten men.

Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans. Many critics considered her the greatest poet of her generation. The poet Thomas Hardy said, "There are only two great things in the U.S., the skyscrapers and the poetry of Millay."

She wrote, "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/ It gives a lovely light!"

It's the birthday of the author and illustrator Edward Gorey, born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He's known for writing and illustrating many morbidly funny books. His first was The Hapless Child (1961), about a little girl named Sophia who is picked on and abused, sold into slavery, forced to make artificial flowers, and finally run over by a car.

It's the birthday of poet Gerald Stern, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He was in his late thirties when he suddenly realized that his life was almost half over and he began to write poems furiously. He has gone on to write many more collections, including Leaving Another Kingdom (1990), Bread Without Sugar (1992), and Odd Mercy (1995).

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