Jun. 15, 2010

The House that Goes Dancing

by Deborah Digges

Not always but sometimes when I put on some music
the house it goes dancing down through the yard
to cha-cha the willows or up into town
to tango the churches.
The neighbors, appalled, they call the police.
The dogcatcher chases my dogs up the street.
Toward the house that goes dancing in raven black boots
or enormous bed slippers,
dragging one leg like an earnest old hunchback
through the midsummer gardens gathering garlands
to wrap round her roof, she goes dancing,
love's house she goes dancing her grief-stricken dance
for his unpacked suitcases, his detritus, his hair, his hairbrush,
his glasses, his letters, his toothbrush,
his closets of clothes where I crouch like a thief
when the house it goes dancing,
a stowaway hiding in big woolen coats,
the scent of his body, the smell of him rising.
We are shaken past the ending, his passing,
Who waltz out of town,
All our mirrors well shattered, our china, our crystal,
Our lightbulbs, our pictures have crashed from the walls.
A magnificent mess!—The doors off their hinges,
the windows wide open.
Let his spirit let go now and his big broken heart,
neither sky nor horizon, neither clay nor this dust.
It's as if he went racing his horse
past the house as we dance him goodbye
as far as we can, as we call out goodbye with our hands
round our mouths, shouting and dancing,
dancing and calling to the edge of the world
through the fields.

"The House that Goes Dancing" by Deborah Digges, from The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of folksinger and writer Christian Bauman, (books by this author) born in Easton, Pennsylvania (1970). He's the author of three widely praised novels, all published within the past decade: The Ice Beneath You (2002), Voodoo Lounge (2005), and In Hoboken (2008).

Though his mom was a doctor and his stepdad — his biggest influence — a philosophy professor, he didn't do well at academics. He barely graduated from high school and never went to college. He became a teenage father and worked as a cook, a clerk, a copy writer, and in all sorts of manual labor jobs. He painted houses, he spent a Philadelphia winter perched on scaffolding working on windows of a tall old school building, and he later watered plants at a corporate office, where he'd time his entry into the executive dining room so that he could help himself to the end of the lunch buffet.

He was 21, impoverished, in debt, without health insurance, and his young daughter needed an operation he couldn't afford. He began to pay attention to Army recruitment commercials. He said he joined the Army "for the same reason most people join the Army." He said, "I was young and poor. I had a child to support and no real job prospects. I wanted to escape. But what clinched it was when I found out the Army would pay for the operation my daughter needed."

He trained at Fort Eustis, in Virginia, where he was the only newly enlisted guy getting The New Yorker magazine. When he was shipped off to Somalia in 1992, he brought his typewriter along. Later, he was sent to Haiti. His four years in the Army, which formed the basis for his semiautobiographical novel The Ice Beneath You, about a soldier named Ben Jones, which begins:

Payphone, he's got a few minutes before the bus pulls out.
Two in the morning, sodium-arc lights turning the remnants of old black snow into yellow piles around the sides of the parking lot. Behind lines of Airstreams and idling semis the moon is trying to crawl its bloated self out of a frozen cornfield. Upturned collars and hands shoved deep in pockets for the rushed, half-sleeping walk from truckstop diner back to the Greyhound. The phone rings in Jones's ear, shivering cold plastic against his skin. Trevor Alphabet answers, from a barracks phone in Virginia. The army never sleeps.

It was on this day in 1992 that Vice President Dan Quayle (books by this author) famously misspelled potato. It was at a grade school in New Jersey, at a campaign event for the 1992 Bush-Quayle re-election bid. The school had staged a classroom spelling bee for the vice president and bused in children participating in drug prevention programs from across the city. Quayle was handed a stack of index cards with spelling bee words to quiz the students, who volunteered to be called on. Sixth-grader William Figueroa was chosen to spell potato. He went to the chalkboard and wrote it out correctly. Quayle glanced down at the index card, which had the word spelled incorrectly, and murmured kindly to the 12-year-old, "You're close, but you left a little something off. The e on the end." William was pretty sure he'd spelled the word correctly, but wanted to be polite and so stuck an "e" at the end. Then some of Quayle's aides began clapping.

The story ran across the country and became a national joke, which everyone seemed to know, even grade school kids. The misspelling of potato became one of the things for which Dan Quayle is most remembered. He himself wrote a whole chapter about it in his memoir, Standing Firm (1994), which was published a couple years afterward. He wrote: "It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable. Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite." And he said, "It seemed like a perfect illustration of what people thought about me anyway." Within months of the spelling bee incident, incumbents George H.W. Bush and Quayle were voted out of office, replaced by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

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