Jan. 20, 2011

French Toast

by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Pain perdu: lost bread. Thick slices sunk in milk,
fringed with crisp lace of browned egg and scattered sugar.
Like spongiest challah, dipped in foaming cream
and frothy egg, richness drenching every yeasted
crevice and bubble, that's how sodden with luck
I felt when we fell in love. Now, at forty,
I remember that "lost bread" means bread that's gone
stale, leftover heels and crusts, too dry for simple
jam and butter. Still, week-old bread makes the best
French toast, soaks up milk as greedily as I turn
toward you under goose down after ten years
of marriage, craving, still, that sweet white immersion.

"French Toast" by Anya Krugovoy Silver, from The Ninety-Third Name of God. © Louisiana State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Susan Vreeland, (books by this author) born in Racine, Wisconsin (1946). She's the author of the New York Times best-sellers Girl in Hyacinth Blue (1999), The Passion of Artemisia (2002), and Luncheon of the Boating Party (2007). Her most recent novel, Clara and Mr. Tiffany (2011), was published about a week ago.

It's the birthday of poet Edward Hirsch, (books by this author) born in Chicago on this day in 1950. He's the author of the collections For the Sleepwalkers (1981), Wild Gratitude (1986), The Night Parade (1989), Earthly Measures (1994), On Love (1998), Lay Back the Darkness (2003), and most recently, Special Orders (2008).

He's a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine and The Paris Review, the winner of all sorts of prestigious poetry prizes, a longtime English professor, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and the author of several books of nonfiction, including The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (2002) and the best-selling How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (1999).

He said: "Read ... poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you. Read them when you're wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture — the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us — has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you."

Here's a poem by Edward Hirsch, called "I'm Going to Start Living Like a Mystic":
Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.

The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage — silent, pondering.

Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.

I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.

I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.

I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.

I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.

It's the birthday of comedian George Burns, (books by this author) born Nathan Birnbaum in New York City on this day in 1896. His dad died in the flu epidemic of 1903. To help his family make ends meet, seven-year-old George Burns got a job in a candy store making syrup in the store's basement. The other kids working there were about the same age. To relieve the boredom, they sang harmony.

One day, a mailman heard them, came downstairs, and asked them to sing some more. Pretty soon a small crowd gathered at the top of the stairs to listen. The people clapped and threw pennies down the stairs. The child laborers decided they'd take their chances and earn their pay busking instead of syrup-making. So they took to the streets of New York City — elementary school-aged kids singing at bars, in brothels, at busy intersections, and on ferryboats.

He quit school before the end of fourth grade to work as a full-time entertainer. He sang, danced, roller-skated, did tricks with seals, and performed in vaudeville. In 1923, he met Gracie Allen, another performer, and began partnering with her in routines. He would later say, "And all of a sudden the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent — and I was married to her for 38 years." They had a show that ran on CBS throughout the 1950s, The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show.

He smoked cigars, lived to be 100 years old, and worked up until the end of his life. He was a best-selling author, and his 10 books include Living It Up: Or, They Still Love Me in Altoona! (1976), Dr. Burns' Prescription for Happiness: Buy Two Books and Call Me in the Morning (1984), and Gracie: A Love Story (1988).

In Just You and Me, Kid (1979), he wrote: "When I was young I was called a rugged individualist. When I was in my fifties I was considered eccentric. Here I am doing and saying the same things I did then and I'm labeled senile."

It was 50 years ago that John F. Kennedy (books by this author) delivered his famous line: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

It was part of his inauguration speech, which is considered one of the best presidential speeches in American history. The speech was 14 minutes long, 1,364 words, and it was strongly influenced by Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

It was in this speech that Kennedy delivered these famous lines as well:
"Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world."
 And, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
After Kennedy's speech, Robert Frost recited a poem. He had written a poem specific to the occasion, called "Dedication," but he couldn't read his typed copy in the glaring January sunshine, and so instead he delivered an older poem that he had memorized, "The Gift Outright."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of filmmaker Federico Fellini, (books by this author) born in the town of Rimini in Italy (1920). He said, "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Robert Olen Butler, (books by this author) born in Granite City, Illinois (1945). He won the Pulitzer Prize in short fiction in 1993 for his collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992).

Butler's first novel, The Alleys of Eden, was published in 1981 after 21 publishers had turned it down. It was the first book in what would become a Vietnam trilogy. The novel received very good reviews, but it sold only a few thousand copies. He wrote six novels before winning the Pulitzer Prize, but it was only after the award that he achieved any commercial success from his writing.

Butler says: "I didn't sell much for a long time. And before I sold that first novel, I wrote five ghastly novels, about forty dreadful short stories, and twelve truly awful full-length plays, all of which have never seen the light of day and never will." Butler went on to write another collection of short stories called Tabloid Dreams (1997), in which all the stories are based on actual headlines he had seen in grocery store tabloid newspapers.

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




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