Mar. 24, 2011

My Father's Body

by William Matthews

First they take it away,
for now the body belongs to the state.
They open it
to see what may have killed it,
and the body had arteriosclerosis
in its heart, for this was an inside job.
Now someone must identify the body
so that the sate may have a name
for what it will give away,
and the funeral people come in a stark car
shaped like a coffin with a hood
and take the body away,
for now it belongs to the funeral people
and the body's family buys it back,
though it lies in a box at the crematorium
while the mourners travel and convene.
Then they bring the body to the chapel, as they call it,
of the crematorium, and the body lies in its box
while the mourners enter and sit
and stare at the box, for the box
lies on a pedestal where the altar would be
if this were a chapel.
A rectangular frame with curtains at the sides
rises from the pedestal,
so that the box seems to fill a small stage,
and the stage gives off the familiar
illusion of being a box with one wall torn away
so that we may see into it,
but it's filled with a box we can't see into.
There's music on tape and a man in a robe
speaks for a while and I speak
for a while and then there's a prayer
and then we mourners can hear the whir
of a small motor and curtains slide
across the stage. At least for today,
I think, this is the stage that all the world is,
and another motor hums on
and we mourners realize that behind
the curtains the body is being lowered,
not like Don Giovanni to the flames
but without flourish or song
or the comforts of elaborate plot,
to the basement of the crematorium,
to the mercies of the gas jets
and the balm of the conveyor belt.
The ashes will be scattered,
says a hushed man in a mute suit,
in the Garden of Remembrance,
which is out back.
And what's left of a mild, democratic man
will sift in a heap with the residue of others,
for now they all belong to time.

"My Father's Body" by William Matthews, from Search Party: Collected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1955 that Tennessee Williams' (books by this author) play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof premiered in New York City at the Morosco Theatre. It was directed by Elia Kazan, and starred Barbara Bel Geddes, Ben Gazzara, and Burl Ives. Tennessee Williams won a second Pulitzer Prize for the play, and a Tony Award, and the show ran for 694 performances. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was Williams' favorite play, but he despised the film version of it, with Elizabeth Taylor.

After he wrote it, he fell into a bout of depression. He said: "Up to 1955 I found it much easier to work, and after 1955 I was conscious of a certain fatigue, and now, well, when I get up in the morning ... let me give you a few little clues — I have anemia, which is rather a problem. I don't know how severe it is, or if anemia is the right word for it, but it is the word that is used; and I have to get up in the morning and give myself an injection, which peps me up sufficiently to get to the goddamn desk. And combined with the shot, there's also the two strong cups of coffee; and then I always have one of these martinis on my writing table; I don't take more than one. But I found after 1955, specifically after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — that I needed these things to give me the physical energy to work; and the intelligent thing might have been to stop working, to rest. But I am a compulsive writer. I have tried to stop working and I am bored to death."

It's the birthday of a great writer of hymns, Fanny Crosby, born in Southeast, New York (1820). When she was an infant, she got sick and the family accidentally hired a quack doctor who prescribed mustard plasters on her eyes, and she went blind. Her father died later the same year. Her mother and grandmother raised her, and she went to the New York Institute for the Blind. She was such a good student that she became a teacher there after she graduated, and she married a blind musician.

Throughout her career, she wrote thousands of hymns. No one knows exactly how many she wrote — the hymnals were hesitant to print too many hymns by one person, so Crosby used about 100 different pseudonyms — but probably between 3,000 and 8,000. Her best-known hymn is "Blessed Assurance":
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long;
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.

Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

Perfect submission, all is at rest,
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

It's the birthday of the geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell, born in Mount Morris, New York (1834). His father was an itinerant preacher, and the family moved around constantly, a habit that Powell kept. As a young man, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin, and he traveled by boat down much of the Mississippi River. He fought in the Civil War, and he lost an arm in combat, but it didn't stop his adventures. He is most famous for exploring the desert Southwest: he traveled down the Colorado River, and explored what are now Zion, Canyonlands, and Bryce National Park, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. He and his companions were the first European-Americans ever to navigate the Grand Canyon Gorge.

He wrote: "The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. [...] It is the land of music. The river thunders in perpetual roar, swelling in floods of music when the storm gods play upon the rocks and fading away in soft and low murmurs when the infinite blue of heaven is unveiled. With the melody of the great tide rising and falling, swelling and vanishing forever, other melodies are heard in the gorges of the lateral canyons, while the waters plunge in the rapids among the rocks or leap in great cataracts. Thus the Grand Canyon is a land of song. Mountains of music swell in the rivers, hills of music billow in the creeks, and meadows of music murmur in the rills that ripple over the rocks. Altogether it is a symphony of multitudinous melodies. All this is the music of waters. The adamant foundations of the earth have been wrought into a sublime harp, upon which the clouds of the heavens play with mighty tempests or with gentle showers. The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon — forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain."

It's the birthday of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His father, an Italian immigrant, died before he was born and his mother was committed to an asylum while he was still an infant. Ferlinghetti spent part of his childhood in a state orphanage. A French aunt took over custody of young Lawrence and moved him to France. After a few years, they returned to New York, where his aunt got a job as a governess with a wealthy family. Then his aunt took off, abandoning her nephew, but the family liked the boy so much that they took him in.

Ferlinghetti had access to good schools, went to college at the University of North Carolina, and then joined the Navy during World War II. He was the commander of 110-foot ship. He said: "Any smaller than us you weren't a ship, you were a boat. But we could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library. We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john. We also got a lot of medicinal brandy the same way."

He moved to New York, then Paris, and then settled in San Francisco. He loved the North Beach neighborhood, full of Italian immigrants, and he decided to open a bookstore there. In 1953, he opened City Lights, the first all-paperback bookstore in the country. It became a center for the Beat poets, and also a publishing house — City Lights Press made its name publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."

Ferlinghetti wrote: "I have a feeling I'm falling / on rare occasions / but most of the time I have my feet on the ground / I can't help it if the ground itself is falling."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of editor, critic, and poet Ian Hamilton, (books by this author) born in King's Lynn in Norfolk, England (1938). Hamilton wanted to be a professional soccer player, but he abandoned this dream after he got scarlet fever — he was worried that it had affected his heart. He said: "I became a scholarly type ... sitting in the library all day. The idea was that if you couldn't make it as a terrific footballer you might as well be a terrific intellectual instead."

He attended Darlington Grammar School, where he was a prefect, and there he put together a magazine called The Scorpion and sold it. He lost his prefect's badge because The Scorpion was competing with the school's official magazine for subscriptions. He said, "I left school hurriedly after that, encouraged on all sides."

He published a few short collections of poetry, including The Visit (1970) and Sixty Poems (1998). He is best known for founding The Review in 1962, which was later called The New Review. It became one of the most important magazines devoted to poetry in England.

He wrote: "You turn to me and when I call you come / Over and kneel beside me, wanting me to take / Your head between my hands as if it were / A delicate bowl that the storm might break."

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




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