Apr. 17, 2010

How to Become a Stepmother

by Beverly Rollwagen

Remember: This is a test you cannot pass.
The thirteen year old asks, "Where are your kids?"
When you say you don't have any, she tells you,
"His last girlfriend did, and we are best friends."

Feel yourself slip through the blue of her eyes.
The sixteen-year-old watches you from all five
corners of the room. When her father is there
she is pleasant, smiles, asks about your cat.

When he leaves a happy man, she tries to kill you
seven different ways. She sets herself on fire
and says you did it. She watches your chest rise
and fall and hates your breath. If you try to touch

her, her arm falls off. She is a sensitive creature.
Be patient. Soon, you marry the father. The girls
come late to the wedding and pull wrinkled dresses
from paper bags to stand in the living room.

crying for their mother. They throw all their arms
around their father and hold him tight within their
skirts for the last time. Stand outside yourself
in your silly white suit with the gold buttons.

Feel the orchid grieve against your cheek. Finally,
the one who hates you most reaches out and pulls
you in. Feel all their arms around you. Think,
this is my wedding. This is our wedding.

"How to Become a Stepmother" by Beverly Rollwagen, from "Flying". © Nodin Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, (books by this author) born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897), author of Our Town (1938). He said, "I am not interested in ... such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions."

It's the birthday of one of the most successful British novelists of his generation, Nick Hornby, (books by this author) born in Maidenhead, England (1957). He got the idea to write a memoir about his life, except that it would be about his life through the lens of his obsession with football.

The book was called Fever Pitch (1992), and many of literary critics in London were shocked when the book became something of a phenomenon in Great Britain, selling hundreds of thousands of copies, making it one of the best-selling books about sport ever published in the English language. Hornby's next book, the novel High Fidelity (1995), was even more successful. It's the story of an obsessive record collector and record store owner who copes with the failures of his life by creating lists: his top five favorite albums, top five TV shows, top five ex-girlfriends, and so on. His most recent novel is Juliet, Naked (2009).

It's the birthday of Isak Dinesen, (books by this author) born Karen Dinesen on a rural estate called Rungsted near Copenhagen, Denmark (1885). She came from a wealthy family of landowners and writers. As a girl, she loved listening to stories about Danish mythology. She started writing at an early age, and one of the first stories she published was about a woman who has a love affair with a ghost.

She and her husband then moved to Kenya, where they started a coffee plantation. She fell in love with Africa, and she said, "The grass was me, and the air, the distant visible mountains were me, the tired oxen were me." But she and her husband separated in 1925. Alone and unhappy on the coffee plantation, she said, "I began in the evenings to write stories, fairy-tales and romances, that would take my mind a long way off, to other countries and times." After a swarm of locusts and a drought, she finally had to sell the farm to a local developer.

But just as she was leaving Africa for good, Dinesen sent some of her stories to a publisher, and they were published as the collection Seven Gothic Tales (1934). The book was full of wild, magical stories about such things as a group of people telling jokes while trying to survive a flood, and a woman who exchanges her soul with an ape. Dinesen wrote, "Truth is for tailors and shoemakers. ... I, on the contrary, have always held that the Lord has a penchant for masquerades."

According to legend, it was on this day in 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer (books by this author) recited The Canterbury Tales to the court of Richard II. Although there is no evidence that this actually happened, it is easy to imagine the scene, in part because of a famous painting of Chaucer reciting his poetry to the court, painted in the early 15th century. The prologue of Canterbury Tales opens with the famous lines:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthein sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is one of the most famous examples of Middle English. Translated into modern English, it's something like:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek

Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.

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




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