May 7, 2010

Morning in America

by Wesley McNair

What draws you to them at first is the nicknames
they have for each other and their little jokes, like
the remark the woman makes to her co-host
about his tie, then apologizes and even touches it
so she seems to more than like him, and why not,

he's handsome in a regular-guy, unthreatening
sort of way, and when they all come back
from a commercial, you almost wonder whether
the blonde who does the news might be a little
jealous, given how she keeps it up about the tie,

or maybe you think just for an instant, how is it
possible for him to watch her all dressed up in her
serious costume to read the news each morning
and not sometimes think of her "in that way,"
but when you happen to catch it the next morning,

she brings in pictures of her baby, and you say
wait a minute, she has a whole other life
off the set, this is a job and these people
are professionals, the newswoman herself,
for openers, reading right through the bad news

about all the shoppers who blew up in the open
market in Iraq and the shocking statistics about
obesity in the United States, unable no matter
how hard she tries to avoid a touch of sadness
on her face, as if what can she do besides continue

to be thin and appealing herself, which is when
you really appreciate the fat laughing guy
who does the weather because you can be serious
for just so long, and anyway there's always a silver
lining in every dark cloud, like he says, for instance

the ones hovering right here over the Midwest,
gesturing toward the cloud graphic spinning
into place, and even though everybody groans
over his corny joke including the ones behind
the camera you can't see, it sort of speaks

for the whole show, OK, the rock star can come on
to pitch her new CD but not without talking about
how she overcame depression and drug use,
and the man selling the book about his mother's
Alzheimer's has to explain how forgetting

who she was made them closer, since basically
this is all about helping you, looking in, deal with
whatever life throws at you, as the male co-host
puts it, turning between guests to his partner
while she nods thoughtfully under her hair, because

she doesn't really think of this as a job, she should be
paying the network, she says, not the other way around,
though right now they have to go to a commercial
again not just one, of course, but ten or fifteen,
the same old thing of models pretending

they are amazed housewives or sick husbands
or doctors in lab coats saying buy this,
buy that, so you can't wait to get back
to some human beings who care about each other
and about us, and who are who they really are.

"Morning in America" by Wesley McNair, from Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems. © David R. Godine, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1718, the French Canadian Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville discovered the city that would come to be called Crescent City, the Big Easy, and the City That Care Forgot. But he called it La Nouvelle Orléans, New Orleans, named for Philippe d'Orléans, the Regent of France.

New Orleans is famous as the birthplace of jazz, and for producing many great musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Harry Connick Jr., and Wynton Marsalis.

But New Orleans also has a rich literary history. It is sometimes called "the least American city" because it has such a distinctive feel, and for years writers have struggled to put New Orleans into words. David Simon, the writer and creator of the new HBO series set in New Orleans, "Treme," described how impossible it was to explain the city to an outsider. He said that he and his co-writer, Eric Overmyer, "imagined the pitch meeting, and we imagined trying to explain New Orleans and being unable to. If I could explain it to you sitting here now, I wouldn't have to do the show. That's the problem: you literally have to drag whatever executive you've got to New Orleans, throw him into a second line, get him drunk, take him here, take him there. It would have to be a lost week: you're not in America anymore — you're in New Orleans! We couldn't imagine being able to do that."

John Kennedy Toole was a New Orleans writer, born in 1937. Most people don't recognize his name, but the title of his only novel is famous: A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). He grew up an only child, with a domineering mother who was convinced that her son was a genius and controlled his life. Although his father worked as a car salesman and mechanic, they lived in a nice part of town and his mother had illusions of grandeur — she was from an old New Orleans family, her great-grandfather a hero in the Battle of New Orleans.

Truman Capote (books by this author) was born in New Orleans in 1924. His mother was 16 years old, a beauty queen, and his father was a nonpracticing lawyer, and his parents lived together in a hotel and soon sent the boy to Alabama to be raised by aunts and cousins. But he spent part of every summer in New Orleans while he was growing up. He dropped out of school as a teenager, went to New York, and made it his adopted home. He went back to New Orleans briefly to start his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). And he wrote about it in his essay "New Orleans," which begins:

"In the courtyard there was an angel of black stone, and its angel head rose above giant elephant leaves; the stark glass angel eyes, bright as the bleached blue of sailor eyes, stared upward. One observed the angel from an intricate green balcony — mine, this balcony, for I lived beyond in three old white rooms, rooms with elaborate wedding-cake ceilings, wide sliding doors, tall French windows. On warm evenings, with these windows open, conversation was pleasant there, tuneful, for wind rustled the interior like fan-breeze made by ancient ladies. And on such warm evenings this town is quiet. Only voices: family talk weaving on an ivy-curtained porch; a barefoot woman humming as she rocks a sidewalk chair, lulling to sleep a baby she nurses quite publicly; the complaining foreign tongue of an irritated lady who, sitting on her balcony, plucks a fryer, the loosened feathers floating from her hands, slipping into air, sliding lazily downward."

Anne Rice (books by this author) was born in New Orleans in 1941, and sets her popular novels there — she is particularly famous as the author The Vampire Chronicles, beginning with Interview with the Vampire (1976).

The playwright Tennessee Williams, born in Mississippi in 1911, made New Orleans his adopted home, and had such a profound effect on the community that the annual literary festival is known as the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche says, "Don't you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour — but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands — and who knows what to do with it?"

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




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