Jul. 28, 2008

Riding the A

by May Swenson

I ride
the "A" train
and feel
like a ball-
bearing in a roller skate.
I have on a gray
coat. The hollow
of the car
is gray.
My face
a negative in the slate
I sit
in a lit
corridor that races
through a dark
one. Strok-
ing steel,
what a smooth rasp—it feels
like the newest of knives
a long
black crusty loaf
from West 4th to 168th.
and rails
in their prime
make love in a glide
of slickness
and friction.
It is an elation
I wish to pro-
The station
is reached
too soon.

"Riding The A" by May Swenson from Things Taking Place: New and Selected Poems. © Little, Brown, 1978. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Pakistani poet and activist Fahmida Riaz (Meerut, India, 1946) (books by this author). She was born in India but grew up in Pakistan. Her whole family was literary, and she published her first poem when she was 15 years old. As a student at the university, she got involved in radical politics. Ever since, she has worked for international human rights, and in 1997, she was awarded the Hellman/Hammett award by Human Rights Watch.

Riaz wanted to write Urdu poetry that would honor its long tradition but also empower women, since Urdu poetry is traditionally male dominated. She explains that equality for women includes "the right to walk on the road without being harassed. Or to be able to swim, or write a love poem, like a man without being considered immoral." Her open discussion of female sexuality has made her poetry controversial. She is the author of six volumes of poetry in Urdu, and selections of her poetry were recently translated into English and collected into the anthology Four Walls and a Black Veil (2005).

She said "One should be totally sincere in one's art, and uncompromising. There is something sacred about art that cannot take violation."

She said, "What feminism means for me is simply that women, like men, are complete human beings with limitless possibilities."

And she wrote in her poem "The Rain God":

Eyes closed, arms outstretched, I run,
I run, touching his blue body to mine.

I am the daughter of Longing! My separateness so strong,
My thirst so unquenched, oneness is otherness still.

Drenched in rain's nectar, I pant. Now, my heart believes,
Is the time of union, of true consummation.

It's the birthday of poet John Ashbery, (books by this author) born in Rochester, New York, in 1927. He grew up on a farm, reading as much as he could in his grandfather's big library. In high school, he sent some poems to Poetry magazine. Afterwards, he found out that one of his friends had recently sent the same poems to the same magazine under a false name so that Ashbery wouldn't be embarrassed. Poetry magazine published the poems, and Ashbery went on to attend Harvard where he became friends with Frank O'Hara. The two poets began a poetry movement with some of their friends called the New York School. His first collection, Turandot and Other Poems (1953), was a limited edition publication, but his second, Some Trees (1956), was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. In 1975, Ashbery's book-length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror made him one of the foremost American poets when it won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Prize. Ashbery said that his poetry comes to him from out of thin air or from his unconscious, and he says that he "never understood about understanding" in poetry, that we should read poetry the way we listen to great music, for the impression it leaves, and not for a desire to literally understand it note by note, or word by word.

It's the birthday of the children's author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, (books by this author) born Helen Beatrix Potter in London, England (1866). She grew up in a wealthy, sheltered household, and she stayed at home with a governess instead of going to school. She almost never saw other children; even her own brother was away at boarding school. So she spent a lot of time outdoors, with animals and plants and mushrooms, and she started to draw them and to think about them. She said, "Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality." Her favorite place was the Lake District, where her family spent every summer. Starting as a teenager, for about 15 years she kept a journal every day in a secret code. She observed things closely, and she even developed a theory of the germination of fungus spores.

Beatrix Potter thought she might become a scientist, but when she wrote a paper to present to the Royal Botanic Gardens, she was turned away because only men were allowed to present. So she continued to make detailed drawings of animals and plants, and she continued to refuse the suitors her parents brought home for her, because she didn't want to be a Victorian housewife and raise children and have no time left for her own interests.

In 1893, Potter sent an illustrated letter to the child of her former governess, and it was in that letter that Peter Rabbit made his debut. She liked creating animal characters, writing and illustrating their stories. So she decided to write children's books, but for years publishers didn't take her seriously. Finally Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), but they didn't think it would do well, so they gave it to their youngest brother Norman for his first project. Norman loved the book, and he let Beatrice collaborate on all the details as they edited it together. For example, Beatrice wanted the book to be small so that children could hold it easily. Beatrix and Norman fell in love and got engaged, but her parents insisted they have a long engagement in case she changed her mind, and Norman died of leukemia before they could get married.

After that, Beatrix bought farmland in the Lake District, and she was finally able to live independently of her parents. Over the years, she continued to publish books—books that kids still read, such as The Tail of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904), and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908). She started to lose her eyesight so she wrote and drew less, but even when she got old she said, "As I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again." She continued to buy land in the Lake District, to preserve the place she had loved so much when she was young. And she became a respected breeder and judge of sheep. When she died, Potter had written 20 books, and she had donated more than 4,000 acres of farmland to the national trust.

She said, "I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever."

And she said, "Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest."

It's the birthday of writer Alice Duer Miller, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1874. Her family was wealthy but they lost all their money in a bank crisis when Alice was a teenager. So even though she really wanted to be a mathematician and studied math and astronomy at Barnard College, she started writing short stories and novels to pay for her education. She said, "Don't ever dare to take your college as a matter of course—because, like democracy and freedom, many people you'll never know have broken their hearts to get it for you."

She graduated, she got married, and she moved with her husband to Costa Rica where he worked in the rubber industry. But that didn't work out, so they came back to the United States, and Miller became involved in the women's suffrage movement. She wrote a series of satirical poems for the New York Tribune, which were published as Are Women People? in 1915, and two years later, more of her columns were published as Women Are People! (1917).

Her stories and short novels sold well, novels like Come Out of the Kitchen (1916). And in the 1920s, several of them were adapted for film, so she went to Hollywood and wrote screenplays. Her most famous work was a novel in verse, The White Cliffs (1940). It's a story that starts in WWI and continues into WWII, and it's about an American woman who marries a British soldier. It was a big success in the United States and in Europe, and it sold almost a million copies.

In The White Cliffs, she wrote:

They make other nations seem pale and flighty,
But they do think England is God almighty,
And you must remind them now and then
That other countries breed other men.

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




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