Nov. 8, 2006

Swear It

by Marge Piercy

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Poem: "Swear It" by Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Swear It

                        for Eva

My mother swore ripely, inventively
a flashing storm of American and Yiddish
thundering onto my head and shoulders.
My father swore briefly, like an ax
descending on the nape of a sinner.

But all the relatives on my father's
side, gosh, they said, goldarnit.
What happened to those purveyors
of soft putty cussing, go to heck,
they would mutter, you son of a gun.

They had limbs instead of legs.
Privates encompassed everything
from bow to stern. They did
number one and number two
and eventually, perhaps, it.

It has always amazed me there are
words too potent to say to those
whose ears are tender as baby
lettuces—often those who label
us into narrow jars with salt and

vinegar, saying, People like them,
meaning me and mine. Never say
the K or N word, just quietly shut
and bolt the door. Just politely
insert your foot in the Other's face.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, (books by this author) born in Nagasaki, Japan (1954). His family moved from Japan to Great Britain when he was six years old. He had a typical English upbringing except for the fact that his family spoke Japanese at home. And every month, a package of books would arrive from Japan, which he had to read and learn, so that he could keep up with Japanese history and culture. He was 15 before his parents told him that they were never going to return to Japan.

After high school, he tried to make a living as a musician. But he eventually began writing novels, the first two of which took place in Japan, even though he hadn't seen the country since he was six years old. But Ishiguro quickly grew tired of being labeled as a Japanese writer. Book reviewers recommended his books as a window onto the East, and it made him feel like a fraud. So he set out to write an entirely English novel about a butler named Stevens working for a man named Lord Darlington in the years before World War II. The novel, called The Remains of the Day, was a huge success when it came out in 1989. It went on to win the Booker Prize and was made into a movie in 1993.

Ishiguro's most recent book is Never Let Me Go (2005).

It's the birthday of Bram Stoker, (books by this author) born in Dublin, Ireland (1847). He was working as a clerk for the civil service when he saw an unknown actor named Henry Irving in a play that changed his life. He became obsessed with Irving's acting career, and eventually, Stoker became the devoted servant of Henry Irving, writing his speeches, ordering his lunches, and planning his every appointment.

Then one night, in 1890, he dreamt that a woman was trying to kiss him on the throat, and an elderly count interrupted her shouting, "This man belongs to me!" Stoker woke up and immediately wrote about the dream in his diary. He couldn't get it out of his mind for weeks, and kept wondering who the count might be. He eventually wrote a novel, inspired by the dream, called Dracula. It came out in 1897 and got mixed reviews. It only became a minor best-seller in Stoker's lifetime. When he died in 1912, the obituaries about Stoker focused on his career in theater, and not a single one mentioned his authorship of Dracula. It wasn't until 1922, when Dracula movies started to appear that Bram Stoker's novel became widely known.

It was on this day in 1864 that Abraham Lincoln was elected to his second term as president of the United States, an election that helped ensure the preservation of the Union. It was one of the only times in history that an election was held by a nation in the middle of a civil war. Lincoln might have tried to cancel or postpone the election until the war was over, but he never considered doing so.

He had a lot of reasons to worry the election might not go his way. The summer before the election, most Americans were weary of war, and calls to end the conflict were becoming louder and louder. But on September 4th, General Tecumseh Sherman announced that his army had captured Atlanta. At the same time, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut announced that he had captured Mobile, Alabama, the last major Gulf port in Confederate hands. In the end, Lincoln carried every state in the Union except New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky.

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