May 11, 2006

Back Porch

by Jay Leeming

THURSDAY, 11 MAY, 2006
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Poem: "Back Porch" by Jay Leeming from Walking Coy Hill Road. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Back Porch

my father needed
an oxygen machine
to breathe
he would often sit
on the back porch
on summer nights
and I would join him
to talk
about music or
the moon
as the sun went
and the cicadas
in the willow trees

If we sat there
long enough
darkness would fill
the backyard
until our bodies
and the orange glow
of his
as he inhaled
became all
that I could see
of him
as if his life
were only
that burning

and the ashes
scattered afterwards

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Mari Sandoz, (books by this author), born in the post office run by her family near Hay Springs, Nebraska (1896). Her parents were Swiss immigrants to the American frontier. She was the oldest of her siblings, and she spent her childhood working hard around the farm. When she was thirteen, she and her brother spent a day digging their cattle out of a blizzard snowdrift, and she developed snow-blindness in one eye.

Sandoz fell in love with the work of Shakespeare and Hawthorne and especially Joseph Conrad, whose writings about life on the sea reminded her of life on the prairie. But her father disapproved of reading fiction, so she had to smuggle books into the house in the front of her dress. She began to write in secret.

She got a job as a journalist out of college, but she wrote under the name Marie Macumber so that her father wouldn't find out what she was doing. When she got news that her father was on his deathbed, she went back home and she was shocked when he asked her to write his life story. It was his last request.

Mari Sandoz spent five years researching and writing about her father. She wrote about his decision to become a pioneer, his extraordinarily hard work establishing a life on the prairie, his role as a leader of the pioneer community, and his love of history and friendship with the local Indians in the area. But she also wrote about her own experiences as his daughter, his bitterness and anger and his frequent violence toward his wife and children.

She called the book Old Jules, and it came out in 1935. It was a Book-of-the-Month club selection and a best-seller, and it allowed Sandoz to go on to write many more books about frontier life and especially about Indians.

She was a meticulous researcher. She wanted to see firsthand the places she wrote about—the routes, camps, and battlefields of the Sioux and Cheyenne. So, in the summer of 1930, she went with a friend on the first of many trips—a three-week, 3,000-mile journey in a Model T Ford. When the car broke down, the women fixed it themselves. They visited reservations, slept in tents, and conducted interviews with Indians in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.

Sandoz used her research in books such as Crazy Horse (1942), a biography of the Sioux Indian chief who helped lead the Indians at the battle of Little Bighorn, where Custer was defeated. Crazy Horse was one of the first books by a white author that tried to see the Indian Wars from the Indians' point of view.

Mari Sandoz said, "I always come back to the Middle West. There's a vigor here, and a broadness of horizon."

It's the birthday of Stanley Elkin, (books by this author) born in New York City (1930). He was one of those writers whose books are deeply admired by other writers but not by many readers. He once said, "I think I know most of my readers by name."

By the time Elkin died in 1995, most of his books had gone out of print, but they were all brought back into print in the last few years, including The Dick Gibson Show (1971) about a radio personality who takes on-air confessions from all the crazy people in America.

It's the birthday of Irving Berlin, (works by this artist) born Israel Baline, in Russia (1888). He came to New York City with his family when he was five, and when he was eight his father died. That was the end of his formal education. After only two years of school, he worked as a street singer and a singing waiter in New York's Lower East Side to help support his family. Eventually, he became a songwriter.

He wrote many holiday anthems, including "Something to Be Thankful For" for Thanksgiving, "Say It With Firecrackers" for the Fourth of July, "A Little Bit of Irish,'' for St. Patrick's Day, "Let's Start the New Year Right" for New Year's Eve, and "I Can't Tell a Lie" for Washington's Birthday. But he's better known for "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."

On this day, in 1858 the state of Minnesota was admitted into the Union. It's the home of the world's largest Paul Bunyan statue, and it was from Minnesotans that we got the stapler, water skis, and roller blades—not to mention Scotch tape, Bisquick, and Spam.

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




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