Jun. 21, 2011

Au Pair

by Mary Jo Salter

The first thing she'd noticed, as they sat her down for lunch
by the picture window, was flags all doing a dance
in front of houses: was today a holiday?
No, they said smiling, it's just the American way,
and she couldn't help reflecting that in France
nobody needed reminding they were French,

but the neighborhood had turned out very nice,
no fences, big yards, kids racing back and forth;
you could let the shower run while you were soaping
or get ice from a giant refrigerator's face.
She couldn't believe how much the franc was worth
and she had no boyfriend yet, but she was hoping,

and because her father was the world's best baker
she naturally thought of his bakery in the Alps
whenever they passed her a slice of their so-called bread,
and sometimes she wished she could hire a jet to take her
back just for breakfast, but as her great-aunt had said
so wisely more than once, it never helps

to make comparisons, so she mostly refrained.
She couldn't believe, though, how here whenever it rained
the mother sent children out without their coats,
not carelessly, but because she had no power
and nobody made them finish the food on their plates
and bedtime was always bedtime plus an hour,

so au pairs were useless really, except for the driving.
Yes, that was puzzling: after she cracked up the car
they didn't blame her or ask her to pay a thing,
but once she let Caitlin eat some sort of cherry
with red dye in it, and then the were angry, very.
Americans were strange, that much was clear:

no penmanship, and lesbians held hands
on the street, and most women carried a pair
of pumps in a bag they never took out to wear;
it was so disrespectful, she couldn't understand
how the older ones got called nothing, not even Madame,
but then nobody in this country had a last name

which was going to make it hard to write them a letter
when she got back. It was really bittersweet
her visa running out; she was sad that all
she'd done with her days off was go to the mall,
she'd bought a million T-shirts and that was great
but she had to admit it, saving would have been better,

and she knew somehow that when she got on the plane
she'd probably never live anywhere foreign again
which filled her American family with more pity
than she felt for herself, because at least she was coping,
she'd work at her sister's shop and stay in the city
where she had no boyfriend yet. But she was hoping.

"Au Pair" by Mary Jo Salter, from A Kiss in Space. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the summer solstice — the first day of summer. The North Pole is tilted toward the sun, and here in the Northern Hemisphere we get the most hours of sunlight that we get all year.

Wallace Stevens (books by this author) wrote: "The summer night is like a perfection of thought."

William Carlos Williams (books by this author) wrote: "Praise from secrecy / quick with desire / love's ascendancy / in summer — // In summer the song / sings itself // above the muffled words —"

Joseph Stroud wrote "Night in Day":
The night never wants to end, to give itself over
to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.
Even on summer solstice, the day of light's great
triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun —
we break open the watermelon and spit out
black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.

Joseph Stroud (books by this author), "Night in Day," from Of This World (2009), Copper Canyon Press.

The poet Stacie Cassarino wrote "Summer Solstice":

I wanted to see where beauty comes from
without you in the world, hauling my heart
across sixty acres of northeast meadow,
my pockets filling with flowers.
Then I remembered,
it's you I miss in the brightness
and body of every living name:
rattlebox, yarrow, wild vetch.
You are the green wonder of June,
root and quasar, the thirst for salt.
When I finally understand that people fail
at love, what is left but cinquefoil, thistle,
the paper wings of the dragonfly
aeroplaning the soul with a sudden blue hilarity?
If I get the story right, desire is continuous,
equatorial. There is still so much
I want to know: what you believe
can never be removed from us,
what you dreamed on Walnut Street
in the unanswerable dark of your childhood,
learning pleasure on your own.
Tell me our story: are we impetuous,
are we kind to each other, do we surrender
to what the mind cannot think past?
Where is the evidence I will learn
to be good at loving?
The black dog orbits the horseshoe pond
for treefrogs in their plangent emergencies.
There are violet hills,
there is the covenant of duskbirds.
The moon comes over the mountain
like a big peach, and I want to tell you
what I couldn't say the night we rushed
North, how I love the seriousness of your fingers
and the way you go into yourself,
calling my half-name like a secret.
I stand between taproot and treespire.
Here is the compass rose
to help me live through this.
Here are twelve ways of knowing
what blooms even in the blindness
of such longing. Yellow oxeye,
viper's bugloss with its set of pink arms
pleading do not forget me.
We hunger for eloquence.
We measure the isopleths.
I am visiting my life with reckless plenitude.
The air is fragrant with tiny strawberries.
Fireflies turn on their electric wills:
an effulgence. Let me come back
whole, let me remember how to touch you
before it is too late.

Stacie Cassarino (books by this author), "Summer Solstice" from Zero at the Bone (2008), New Issues Press.

Donna Kane wrote a poem also called "Summer Solstice":

The light stretched and tangy, up on its horse
and riding through the ripening meadows,
buzzing the leaves and the
birds who've been at it for hours.
Light that in its excess has become something else.
The way Cranberry Falls is so frothed with runoff
it doesn't look like water anymore. The way you look
from a hill's highest point, your head full of chlorophyll,
heart shucking winter like a clayload of guilt,
like pollen with its open fire policy
compensating loss. You exceed yourself,
tanked on the light and the birds
who've been singing forever.

"Summer Solstice," Donna Kane (books by this author), published in The Walrus, June 2007.

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author), born in Aldershot, England (1948). His father served in the army, so the boy grew up all over the world, including Singapore, Germany, and Libya. His father was a working-class Scot who had worked his way up to an officer's rank in the army. He drank too much, and Ian and his mother were both frightened of him. His mother was constantly anxious about trying to fit in with the other officers' wives, who spoke polished English with upper-class accents. McEwan said: "I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is cockney, estuary, RP or valley girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother, Rose, was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learnt it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got."

When McEwan was 11 years old, living in Libya, his parents sent him off to boarding school in England, where he eventually learned to correct his grammar and write polished sentences. But he kept the tendency to approach language with caution, and he is a notoriously slow and careful writer. He spent more than a year brainstorming before he began Atonement —he said, "I had a number of good descriptions of novels, as if they had already been written," but no actual writing to speak of. Then he took his sons away to a weekend resort and he had a vision of a young woman arranging flowers and thinking about the gardener outside her window. He managed to write a paragraph and a half, and that became the beginning of his second chapter of Atonement (2001). He wrote: "Partly because of her youth and the glory of the day, partly because of her blossoming need for a cigarette, Cecilia Tallis half ran with her flowers along the path that went by the river, by the old diving pool with its mossy brick wall, before curving away through the oak woods. The accumulated inactivity of the summer weeks since finals also hurried her along; since coming home, her life had stood still and a fine day like this made her impatient, almost desperate."

Ian McEwan's other novels include Amsterdam (1998), Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2007), and Solar (2010). His novels have sold more than 15 million copies.

He said, "My ideal state as a reader when I'm reading other people is feeling I'm vaguely wasting my time when I'm not reading that novel."

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author), born in Paris (1905). This giant of existential thought was also a well-known prankster during his days at the École Normale. He and a friend dropped water balloons from the roof onto dinner guests in tuxedos, shouting, "Thus pissed Zarathustra!" He sometimes showed up naked to official functions, and he vomited on the feet of a school official. After Charles Lindbergh successfully flew across the Atlantic, Sartre and several of his friends announced to the media that Lindbergh would be receiving an honorary degree at the École Normale, then one of them impersonated Lindbergh and convinced the media that he was at the school. There was such an uproar when it turned out to be a hoax that the school's president was forced to resign.

In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but he refused it. When he died in 1980, 50,000 people turned out on the streets of Paris to pay their respects.

He wrote: "I was there, standing in front of a window whose panes had a definite refraction index. But what feeble barriers! I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen."

From the archives:

On this day in 1947, the novelist and poet Malcolm Lowry (books by this author) wrote a letter to a friend. He sent the letter from British Columbia, where he and his wife lived in a squatter's shack on the coast.

He wrote: "This is not to say that it is not spring, that the primroses are not out, and the bluebells, and the skunk cabbages, and the newborn seagulls, and the crabs 'millions of life' as my friend Sam says, 'a swaillerin' and a stretching of their muscles' and the reflections of sunlight on water sliding down the pines, and the deer with their 'hantlers sticking up pretty swimming out toward the lighthouse in spring' and a beautiful sheen and stink of bulk oil over the entire inlet from the neighboring refineries.

"Typographical error: what I should have said is that it was spring, but now is midsummer day, the longest day of the year in fact, and the summer solstice and the highest tide. [...] I am at work on another lugubriousness, and have even blossomed, or promised to blossom last spring — hence it is a little late now — as some kind of a poet somewhere or other: at all events rather less lugubriously. We have earache due to over swimming and we have an unfaithful cat. Otherwise we are in good health, in spite of having seen two ravens mating on Friday the 13th of this month."

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




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