Apr. 13, 2011

Truth in Advertising

by Andrea Cohen

If we'd moved her,
she'd still have 'em,

the ad for Acme
Moving says, with a photo

of Venus de Milo.
But who, intact,

would Venus be?
Some standard-issue

ingénue. Give me
a woman who's lived

a little, who's wrapped
her arms around the ages

and come up lacking: that's
the stone that can move me.

"Truth in Advertising" by Andrea Cohen, from Kentucky Derby. © Salmon Poetry, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Thomas Jefferson (books by this author), born in what is now Albemarle County in Virginia (1743). In March of 1819, he wrote to his friend Dr. Vine Utley: "I live so much like other people, that I might refer to ordinary life as the history of my own. Like my friend the Doctor, I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet. I double, however, the Doctor's glass and a half of wine, and even treble it with a friend; but halve its effects by drinking the weak wines only. The ardent wines I cannot drink, nor do I use ardent spirits in any form. Malt liquors and cider are my table drinks, and my breakfast, like that also of my friend, is of tea and coffee. I have been blest with organs of digestion which accept and concoct, without ever murmuring, whatever the palate chooses to consign to them, and I have not yet lost a tooth by age. I was a hard student until I entered on the business of life, the duties of which leave no idle time to those disposed to fulfill them; and now, retired, and at the age of 76, I am again a hard student. Indeed, my fondness for reading and study revolts me from the drudgery of letter writing. And a stiff wrist, the consequence of an early dislocation, makes writing both slow and painful. I am not so regular in my sleep as the Doctor says he was, devoting to it from five to eight hours, according as my company or the book I am reading interests me; and I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour's previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep. But whether I retire to bed early or late, I rise with the sun. I use spectacles at night, but not necessarily in the day, unless in reading small print. My hearing is distinct in particular conversation, but confused when several voices cross each other, which unfits me for the society of the table. I have been more fortunate than my friend in the article of health. So free from catarrhs that I have not had one, (in the breast, I mean) on an average of eight or ten years through life. I ascribe this exemption partly to the habit of bathing my feet in cold water every morning, for 60 years past. A fever of more than 24 hours I have not had above two or three times in my life. A periodical headache has afflicted me occasionally, once, perhaps, in six or eight years, for two or three weeks at a time, which seems now to have left me; and except on a late occasion of indisposition, I enjoy good health; too feeble, indeed, to walk much, but riding without fatigue six or eight miles a day, and sometimes 30 or 40. I may end these egotisms, therefore, as I began, by saying that my life has been so much like that of other people, that I might say with Horace, to every one nomine mutato, narratur fabula de te."

The Latin translates to: Change the name, and the story is told of you.

It's the birthday of the man who said: "My mistakes are my life." That's the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (books by this author), born in Dublin (1906). He is the author of the plays Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957), and the novels Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932) and Molloy (1951). He went to Trinity College in Dublin, but his true literary education came from helping James Joyce with Finnegans Wake. A year after finishing Ulysses, Joyce started work on the book that would become Finnegans Wake 16 years later. He wrote to a friend: "Yesterday I wrote two pages, the first I have written since the final 'Yes' of Ulysses. Having found a pen, with some difficulty I copied them out in a large handwriting on a double sheet of foolscap so that I could read them." He was losing his eyesight and couldn't read his own writing otherwise.

Samuel Beckett got a job teaching in Paris, and it was there he met Joyce. Beckett helped Joyce research puns and language wordplay for Finnegans Wake, translated sections into French, and occasionally copied down Joyce's dictation. Richard Ellmann wrote in James Joyce (1959): "Once or twice he dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn't hear. Joyce said, 'Come in,' and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, 'What's that "Come in"?' 'Yes, you said that,' said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, 'Let it stand.' He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator."

Beckett's relationship with Joyce disintegrated after Joyce's daughter, Lucia, fell in love with Beckett, a feeling that he did not reciprocate. Lucia was mentally unstable and ended up spending most of her life in sanatoriums. Joyce said, "Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia, and it has kindled a fire in her brain." Beckett was stuck in a tough place—he didn't want to reject Lucia outright because he wanted to keep in the good graces of her father, but he knew she was more encouraged every time he came. Finally, he admitted to Lucia that he was coming to the Joyce residence to see James. She was devastated, Her mother, Nora, insisted that Beckett was deliberately using Lucia to get closer to James, and Beckett was banned from the house. It took almost two years before he and James Joyce resumed their friendship.

Beckett said: "I always thought old age would be a writer's best chance. Whenever I read the late work of Goethe or W.B. Yeats I had the impertinence to identify with it. Now my memory's gone, all the old fluency's disappeared. I don't write a single sentence without saying to myself, 'It's a lie!' So I know I was right. It's the best chance I've ever had."

It's the birthday of the woman who said: "My tendency is to believe that all experience is an enrichment instead of an impoverishment." That's fiction writer Eudora Welty (books by this author), born in Jackson, Mississippi (1909). Her short-story collections include A Curtain of Green (1941) and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1982); and her novels include Delta Wedding (1946), The Ponder Heart (1954), and The Optimist's Daughter (1972).

Her short story "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies" begins: "Mrs. Watts and Mrs. Carson were both in the post office in Victory when the letter came from the Ellisville Institute for the Feeble-Minded of Mississippi. Aimee Slocum, with her hand still full of mail, ran out in front and handed it straight to Mrs. Watts, and they all three read it together. Mrs. Watts held it taut between her pink hands, and Mrs. Carson underscored each line slowly with her thimbled finger. Everybody else in the post office wondered what was up now.

"'What will Lily say,' beamed Mrs. Carson at last, 'when we tell her we're sending her to Ellisville!'
"'She'll be tickled to death,' said Mrs. Watts, and added in a guttural voice to a deaf lady, 'Lily Daw's getting in at Ellisville!'

"'Don't you all dare go off and tell Lily without me!' called Aimee Slocum, trotting back to finish putting up the mail.

"'Do you suppose they'll look after her down there?' Mrs. Carson began to carry on a conversation with a group of Baptist ladies waiting in the post office. She was the Baptist preacher's wife.

"'I've always heard it was lovely down there, but crowded,' said one.

"'Lily lets people walk over her so,' said another.

"'Last night at the tent show —' said another, and then popped her hand over her moth.

"'Don't mind me, I know there are such things in the world,' said Mrs. Carson, looking down and fingering the tape measure which hung over her bosom.

"'Oh, Mrs. Carson. Well, anyway, last night at the tent show, why, the man was just before making Lily buy a ticket to get in.'

"'A ticket!'

"'Till my husband went up and explained she wasn't bright, and so did everybody else.'
The ladies all clucked their tongues.

"'Oh, it was a very nice show,' said the lady who had gone. 'And Lily acted so nice. She was a perfect lady — just set in her seat and stared.'

"'Oh, she can be a lady — she can be,' said Mrs. Carson, shaking her head and turning her eyes up. 'That's just what breaks your heart.'

"'Yes'm, she kept her eyes on — what's the thing makes all the commotion? — the xylophone,' said the lady. 'Didn't turn her head to the right or to the left the whole time. Set in front of me.'"

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Irish poet Seamus Heaney (books by this author), born in Mossbawn, Northern Ireland (1939). He was the oldest of nine siblings. His father was a cattle dealer, and Heaney grew up in a three-room thatched farm. He said, "[It was] an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other."

Heaney began publishing poems in the 1960s about his childhood memories of ordinary things, like potatoes and bullfrogs. He received a letter from the editor of Faber & Faber asking if he'd like to publish a collection. Faber & Faber had published T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell, and Heaney said, "Getting that letter was like getting a letter from God the Father." That first collection was Death of a Naturalist (1966) and it made his name as a poet.

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