Aug. 24, 2006


by X. J. Kennedy

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Poem: "Pie" by X.J. Kennedy from The Lords of Misrule. (Johns Hopkins University Press). (buy now)


Whoever dined in this café before us
Took just a forkful of his cherry pie.
We sit with it between us. Let it lie
Until the overworked waitperson comes
To pick it up and brush away the crumbs.

You look at it. I look at it. I stare
At you. You do not look at me at all.
Somewhere, a crash as unwashed dishes fall.
The clatter of a dropped knife splits the air.
Second-hand smoke infiltrates everywhere.

Your fingers clench the handle of a cup
A stranger drained. I almost catch your eye
For a split second. The abandoned pie
Squats on its plate before us, seeping red
Like a thing not yet altogether dead.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1814, the British captured and burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. British officers dined at the deserted White House. Reconstruction began a year later and was finished in September 1817, whereupon James Monroe moved into the new White House.

It's the birthday of fiction writer Oscar Hijuelos, (books by this author) born in New York City (1951) to Cuban parents. In 1990, he became the first Hispanic writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, for his novel Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It's about two Cuban musicians who come to New York, where they work menial jobs during the day and perform at raucous dance halls at night.

It's the birthday of Malcolm Cowley, (books by this author) born in Belasco, Pennsylvania (1898). He was a literary critic, historian, editor, poet, and essayist, who's known as the best chronicler of the so-called "Lost Generation" of post-World War I writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cowley said, "Authors are sometimes like tomcats: They distrust all the other toms but they are kind to kittens."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Herrick, (books by this author) born in London (1591), the author of the lines, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying, / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying." He worked as a goldsmith, went to college, and left London for the English countryside, where he stayed for many years and wrote most of his poetry. He wrote short lyric poems and songs. He wrote about seducing women and taking advantage of your youth, but he never married and most of the women in his poems were probably imaginary. He also wrote religious poems. His poetry was distributed among friends, and eventually reached people in higher places, making Herrick known throughout England. In 1648, he published Hesperides, which contained over 1,000 poems. He wrote:

Give me a kiss, and to that kiss a score;
Then to that twenty, add a hundred more:
A thousand to that hundred: so kiss on,
To make that thousand up a million.
Treble that million, and when that is done,
Let's kiss afresh, as when we first begun.

It's the birthday of novelist A.S. Byatt, (books by this author) born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield, England (1936). She was a professor in London for about twenty years, and she writes academic criticism about Victorian literature in addition to her popular novels like Possession (1990) and Angels and Insects (1992).

It's the birthday of the Argentine poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges, (books by this author) born in Buenos Aires (1899). He said, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

It's the birthday of writer Jean Rhys, (books by this author) born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in Roseau, Dominica, West Indies (1890). She was a depressed alcoholic who called herself "a doormat in a world of boots," and she often wrote about seedy characters who live in poverty. Her novel Good Morning, Midnight (1939) is about a girl who leaves her Caribbean island to live in England, where she is abandoned by her stepmother, works as a chorus girl, falls in love with an older man, and finally has an abortion.

Rhys wrote throughout the 1920s and '30s, and then dropped out of public view for about twenty years when she went off to live in a cottage in the English countryside. She started to write again at the end of the '50s, and wrote short stories that were published in British magazines. In 1960, she came out with her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, about the relationship between a powerful European man and a poor West Indian woman.

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