Dec. 15, 2010

At My Brother's Place

by Michelle Boisseau

The TV set whose picture works rides on top
       the TV whose sound does. The stations
       change with the needle-nosed pliers.
From the bed, where he lies most the day,
       draggle sheets flecked with holes
       where his ashes have dropped.
Every surface is covered with the fuzz of ash,
       punctuated by the twisted cigarette packs.
His teeth hurt him to wear. From a chair seat
       they grin at a crowd of Coke cans.
Here's the Bible he chants from at night, his third
       this month. They have a way of disappearing
       like the $50 bill I gave him yesterday.

I've brought him salami and cherries. Pumpernickel
       and mustard, a plastic knife to spread it with.
And look, new T-shirts, new socks. A roll of stamps
       and paper, a phone card, an address book
       where I've written all our numbers.
When I've unloaded the packages, and he has eaten
       everything at once, breathing hard, spitting cherry
       pits into his fist,
I walk out to my rental car, clean and empty.

"At My Brother's Place" by Michelle Boisseau, from Trembling Air. © The University of Arkansas Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Betty Smith, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1896). Her parents were both from families of German immigrants, and Smith was raised in poverty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which was the most densely populated neighborhood in New York City, filled with recent immigrants. Smith went to school through eighth grade, then took classes at the YMCA and a settlement house.

She got married and accompanied her husband to Ann Arbor when he started law school at the University of Michigan. The university let her take classes even though she didn't have a high school degree, and she studied literature, journalism, and playwriting. She got divorced, and she was hired by the W.P.A., which sent her to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She loved it there. She read local novelist Thomas Wolfe's book Of Time and the River, and she said it "made it all come back then, like a flood. All of Brooklyn." So she started work on a novel based loosely on her own childhood, a book about growing up poor, and she called it A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). It sold 300,000 copies in six weeks, and has sold millions more since then.

She wrote:
At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour's birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest. Kids volunteered to stand up against the throwing. If a boy didn't fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree. Only the roughest boys and some of the young men elected to be hit by the big trees. The others waited shrewdly until a tree came up that they could stand against. The little kids waited for the tiny, foot-high trees and shrieked in delight when they won one.

On the Christmas Eve when Francie was ten and Neeley nine, mama consented to let them go down and have their first try for a tree. Francie had picked out her tree earlier in the day. She had stood near it all afternoon and evening praying that no one would buy it. To her joy, it was still there at midnight. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood and its price was so high that no one could afford to buy it. It was ten feet high. Its branches were bound with new white rope and it came to a sure pure point at the top.

The man took this tree out first. Before Francie could speak up, a neighborhood bully, a boy of eighteen known as Punky Perkins, stepped forward and ordered the man to chuck the tree at him. The man hated the way Punky was so confident. He looked around and asked, "Anybody else wanna take a chance on it?"

Francie stepped forward. "Me, Mister."

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

"Aw g'wan. You're too little," the tree man objected.

"Me and my brother — we're not too little together."

She pulled Neeley forward. The man looked at them a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round. He looked at the little boy with his fair hair and round blue eyes — Neeley Nolan, all innocence and trust.

"Two ain't fair," yelped Punky.

"Shut your lousy trap," advised the man who held all power in that hour. "These here kids is got nerve. Stand back, the rest of yous. These kids is goin' to have a show at this tree."

The others made a wavering lane. Francie and Neeley stood at one end of it and the big man with the big tree at the other. It was a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane. For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane.

"Oh, Jesus Christ," his soul agonized, "why don't I just give 'em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let 'em go? What's the tree to me? I can't sell it no more this year and it won't keep till next year." The kids watched him solemnly as he stood there in his moment of thought. "But then," he rationalized, "if I did that, all the others would expect to get 'em handed to 'em. And next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They'd all wait to get 'em handed to 'em on a silver plate. I ain't a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin'. No, I ain't big enough. I ain't big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids." He finally came to his conclusion. "Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and to take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain't give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world." As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, "It's a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!"

Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing-nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling.

When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand. Blood was coming from scratches on Neeley's face. He looked more like a baby than ever with his bewildered blue eyes and the fairness of his skin made more noticeable because of the clear red blood. But they were smiling. Had they not won the biggest tree in the neighborhood? Some of the boys hollered "Hooray!" A few adults clapped. The tree man eulogized them by screaming, "And now get the hell out of here with your tree, you lousy bastards."

It's the birthday of poet Muriel Rukeyser, (books by this author) born in New York City (1913). She wrote: "We were a generation of grim children, / leaning over the bedroom sills, watching / the music and the shoulders and how the war was over, / laughing until the blow on the mouth broke night / wide out from cover." She grew up in a wealthy family, chauffeured from place to place, moving between private schools, spending the summer in a second home. But her parents' marriage was unhappy, and she was miserable. Then she went off to Vassar, but she had to leave after two years when her father's business went bankrupt.

When she was 22, Rukeyser went to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where a big chemical company, Union Carbide, was attempting a cover-up of unsafe working conditions — miners were being exposed to silica. It could have been avoided if the corporation would have taken the precautions mandated by the U.S. Bureau of Mines — to mine with hydraulic water drills (instead of dry drilling, which created more dust), and to give employees masks with filters. Instead, Union Carbide was going the faster and cheaper route, and miners were dying of silicosis. Rukeyser went to Gauley Bridge with a photographer friend, and she interviewed miners and their families and employees of Union Carbide. And she rounded up all sorts of literature on the subject — articles, interviews with social workers, testimony from doctors and even Congress. She took it all and wrote a long poem called "The Book of the Dead," made up of many smaller poems with shifting narrators, which she published in her poetry collection U.S. 1 (1938).

Grace Paley was one of Rukeyser's good friends and a colleague on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. She said: "Muriel, whom I loved very much, had a way of talking that was so dense hardly anybody could understand her sometimes. […] In any one sentence she'd have a couple of extra clauses, contradictions, strange syntax. Muriel was a brilliant poet. A genius, really. But on personal matters [...] she could be vague to the point of unintelligible."

Muriel Rukeyser said, "If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger."

It's the birthday of playwright Maxwell Anderson, (books by this author) born on a farm near Atlantic, Pennsylvania (1888). His father was an itinerant Baptist preacher, and the family traveled across the Midwest. He went to college in North Dakota, and started a career as a high school teacher there, but he was fired for his pacifist views. He moved to California, and ended up teaching at Whittier College, where he was fired again for the same thing.

So he turned to writing. His first play was called White Desert (1923). He said, "I wrote it in verse because I was weary of plays in prose that never lifted from the ground." It was a contemporary tragedy about a marriage, set on the North Dakota prairie. It got some great reviews from theater critics, but audiences were totally confused and it closed after just 12 performances. But he kept writing, plays like What Price Glory? (1924), Both Your Houses (1933), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Anne of the Thousand Days (1948). He was incredibly prolific, staging 33 plays in 36 years.

He said: "This modern craze for biographical information leaves me cold for many reasons. For one thing, it's always inaccurate; for another, it's so bound up with publicity and other varieties of idiocy that it gags a person of any sensibility. For another, to be heralded is to become a candidate for the newest list of 'the busted geniuses of yester-year' of whom I hope never to be one."

It's the birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, (books by this author) born Leyzer Leyvi Zamengov in Bialystok, Poland (1859). The region of Poland where he grew up was ethnically and linguistically segregated, with at least four languages being spoken in close proximity. So he decided that a universal language was the answer. He took elements from various languages and created Esperanto, a new language with a simpler syntax and grammar rules. Of course, a universal language mostly meant a simplified version of Western European languages, since he didn't know any Asian or African languages. Today, there are estimated to be between 500,000 and a few million speakers of Esperanto.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Gustave Eiffel, born in Dijon, France (1832). He was an early pioneer in using metal to construct bridges, and he went on to build the Eiffel Tower for the World's Fair in Paris in 1889. It was the tallest structure in the world at the time, at 1.000 feet, and Eiffel decided to leave the metal scaffolding exposed because he thought the tower would be more stable if the wind could blow through it. Many people at the time thought it was ugly, but it still holds up to the wind. In 1999, Paris was hit by a windstorm that knocked down more than 100,000 trees. The Eiffel Tower only swayed nine centimeters.

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