May 9, 2008

Mrs. Snow

by Donald Justice

Busts of the great composers glimmered in niches,
Pale stars. Poor Mrs. Snow, who could forget her,
Calling the time out in that hushed falsetto?
(How early we begin to grasp what kitsch is!)
But when she loomed above us like an alp,
We little towns below could feel her shadow.
Somehow her nods of approval seemed to matter
More than the stray flakes drifting from her scalp.
Her etchings of ruins, her mass-production Mings
Were our first culture: she put us in awe of things.
And once, with her help, I composed a waltz,
Too innocent to be completely false,
Perhaps, but full of marvelous clichés.
She beamed and softened then.
                                    Ah, those were the days.

"Mrs. Snow" by Donald Justice from Collected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Charles Simic, (books by this author) born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). He described the war years when he was a child in Yugoslavia as "pure hell." He said, "Germans and the Allies took turns dropping bombs on my head while I played with my collection of lead soldiers on the floor. I would go boom, boom, and then they would go boom, boom. Even after the war was over, I went on playing war. My imitation of a heavy machine gun was famous in my neighborhood in Belgrade."

When he was 15, his family moved to Paris. "My travel agents were Hitler and Stalin," he said. "Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of bad luck, I heard plenty of others. I'm still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life."

The next year, he and his mother reunited with his father by joining him in New York. "If you came to New York in 1954, it was incredible. Europe was still gray; there were still ruins. New York was just dazzling. When I was a little kid in Yugoslavia I loved jazz, I loved movies, so this was paradise," he said.

The family moved to a suburb outside of Chicago, and Simic attended the same high school in Oak Park that Hemingway did. He learned English when he was 15 and began writing poetry in English only a few years after he started learning the language. At his high school, he found some students who were writing poetry. "They would show it to one another, and I started writing in reaction to what they had done. I didn't know English as well as Serbo-Croatian at the time, but a poem of maybe 10 lines was possible. It was a challenge: It was ambitious for me, but I could probably handle it better than I could have handled prose in English."

He told an interviewer that he was inspired to write "when I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems." He was 21 years old when his first poems were published in The Chicago Review — just five years after he came to the U.S.

He started going to school at the University of Chicago and spent nights working as a proofreader of advertisements, which he said was good training for a poet who has "an obsession with economy, the effort to say less and less to mean more and more." He was drafted into the army and served as an MP in West Germany and France in the early 1960s. Upon returning to the States, he went to NYU and also worked in New York selling books and shirts and working as a bookkeeper while he wrote and translated poetry.

He was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2007. When asked by an interviewer what advice he'd give to people looking to be happy, he said, "For starters, learn how to cook."

On this day in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a birth control pill. Margaret Sanger had campaigned for more than 40 years for a contraceptive that would be inexpensive and widely available. She raised $3 million from her friend Katherine McCormick to fund the research of doctors John Rock and Gregory Pincus, who began working together on the project in 1952.

The first oral contraceptive pill was called Enovid-10 and was a 10-mg combination of synthetic hormones norethynodrel and mestranol. It was approved first in 1957 for treating menstrual disorders. Then, on this day, the FDA announced that it would approve the pill for the use of birth control. The pill prevents pregnancy because its synthetic hormones block the ovaries from releasing eggs that can be fertilized.

It wasn't until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, however, that the pill became available in all states to married women. With Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, the pill became available as well to unmarried women in all states. In 2000, more than 16 million American women were taking the pill.

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