Oct. 7, 2011

Mambo Cadillac

by Barbara Hamby

Drive me to the edge in your Mambo Cadillac,
      turn left at the graveyard and gas that baby, the black
night ringing with its holy roller scream. I'll clock
      you on the highway at three a.m., brother, amen, smack
the road as hard as we can, because I'm gonna crack
      the world in two, make a hoodoo soup with chicken necks,
a gumbo with plutonium roux, a little snack
      before the dirt-and-jalapeño stew that will shuck
the skin right off your slinky hips, Mr. I'm-not-stuck
      in-a-middle-class-prison-with-someone-I-hate sack
of blues. Put on your high-wire shoes, Mr. Right, and stick
      with me. I'm going nowhere fast, the burlesque
queen of this dim scene, I want to feel the wind, the Glock
      in my mouth, going south, down-by-the-riverside shock
of the view. Take me to Shingles Fried Chicken Shack
      in your Mambo Cadillac. I was gone, but I'm back
for good this time. I've taken a shine to daylight. Crank
      up that radio, baby, put on some dance music
and shake your moneymaker, doll, rev it up to Mach
2, I'm talking to you, Mr. Magoo. Sit up, check
out that blonde with the leopard print tattoo. O she'll lick
      the sugar right off your doughnut and bill you, too, speak
French while she do the do. Parlez-vous français? So, pick
      me up tonight at ten in your Mambo Cadillac
Chile, Argentina, Peru. Take some time off work;
we're gonna be a lot longer than a week
or two. Is this D-day or Waterloo? White or black—
it's up to you. We'll be in Mexico tonight. Pack
a razor, pack some glue. Things fall apart off the track,
and that's where we'll be, baby, in our Mambo Cadillac,
      cause you're looking for love, but I'm looking for a wreck.

"Mambo Cadillac" by Barbara Hamby, from All-Night Lingo Tango. © University of Pittsburg Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of poet James Whitcomb Riley (books by this author), born in Greenfield, Indiana, in 1849. He wrote about a thousand poems, and most of them are written in the Hoosier dialect of central Indiana. He didn't like school, and was often in trouble, but his parents didn't push him; his father, who was a lawyer, felt he should shape his own education by following his interests — chiefly painting, drama, and literature. He had a keen ear, both for music and for language; he played several instruments by ear, and had a knack for spinning local-color tales and verses.

A 12-year-old orphan girl named Mary Alice Smith inspired one of his best-known poems. His father was away fighting in the Civil War, and his mother took the girl in to help with the running of the household. Riley called his poem "The Elf Child," and it was first published in 1885. Riley changed the title to "Little Orphant Allie" in 1897, for its third printing, but the typographer made a mistake, and the title ended up as "Little Orphant Annie" instead. The poem and its heroine inspired a comic strip, plays, musicals, radio shows, and movies.

It's the birthday of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, born in Copenhagen in 1885. He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922 for his research into atomic structure: He theorized that atoms were composed of a small, dense nucleus that is orbited by electrons at a fixed distance from the nucleus. He also theorized that the absorption of energy by the atom bumped its electrons to an orbit farther from the nucleus, and the radiation of energy would cause the electrons to drop to a level closer to the nucleus. He also put forward the principle of complementarity: that things like light or electrons can have a dual nature — as a particle and a wave, for example — but we can only experience one aspect of their nature at a time.

After Hitler rose to power, Bohr became concerned for the safety of his Jewish colleagues in Germany, and he began offering places of refuge in Copenhagen for them almost immediately. In 1943, before he was smuggled out of Denmark to work on the Manhattan Project, he persuaded Sweden's King Gustav to provide asylum to Danish Jews. In the United States, he became concerned about the potential for a nuclear arms race, and urged President Roosevelt to share the Manhattan Project research with the Russians. Roosevelt disagreed, and so did Winston Churchill, who considered Bohr a security risk. Churchill wrote, "It seems to me Bohr ought to be confined or at any rate made to see that he is very near the edge of mortal crimes."

It's the birthday of journalist, nonfiction author, and writing teacher William Zinsser (books by this author), born in New York City in 1922. He's written several books, including a couple of memoirs and books about travel, jazz, and baseball. His best-known work is On Writing Well (1976). In it he advocates a clean, spare style: "Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon."

He has a bit of advice for would-be authors of memoir: "Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and they will jump overboard to get away."

Today is the birthday of Australian author Thomas Keneally (books by this author), born in Sydney in 1935. When he finished school, he decided to become a priest and studied for seven years in preparation. He eventually decided that he wasn't cut out for it, and he left the seminary in 1960, before his ordination. He remains interested in spiritual subjects and social questions. He's written 10 books of nonfiction and many novels; he's best known as the author of Schindler's Ark (1982), the book on which the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List (1993) was based. It's the story of an opportunistic, alcoholic, womanizing German businessman, Oskar Schindler, who bribed and conned Nazi officials into letting him open his own labor camp staffed by Jewish prisoners. In time, Schindler began to use his labor camp to rescue hundreds of Jews from the concentration camps. Keneally told Publishers Weekly, "Stories of fallen people who stand out against the conditions that their betters succumb to are always fascinating. It was one of those times in history when saints are no good to you and only scoundrels who are pragmatic can save souls."

His latest book, just released in August, is Three Famines: Starvation and Politics (2011). In it, he examines the role of government in the outcomes of three famous famines: the 19th century Irish potato famine, the 1943 famine in Bengal, and the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and '80s.

It's the birthday of poet and essayist Diane Ackerman (1948) (books by this author), born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois. She has a knack for blending science and literary art; she wrote her first book of poetry entirely about astronomy. It was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, and it was published in 1976, while she was working on her doctorate at Cornell. Carl Sagan served as a technical advisor for the book, and he was also on her dissertation committee. Her most widely read book is 1990's A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired a five-part Nova miniseries, Mystery of the Senses, which she hosted. She even has a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.

In 1970, she married novelist and poet Paul West. They shared a playful obsession with words that was central to their expressions of love for each other. In 2005, Paul suffered a stroke that resulted in global aphasia — an inability to process language — and reduced his vast vocabulary to a single syllable: mem. Even when he recovered the ability to speak, his brain kept substituting wrong words for the right ones, but she encouraged him not to fight his brain, but to just go with it, to say what it was giving him to say. As a result, the hundred little pet names he used to have for her before the stroke have been replaced with non sequiturs like "my little bucket of hair" and "spy elf of the morning hallelujahs." Ackerman wrote about the stroke and Paul's journey back to language in her most recent memoir, One Hundred Words for Love (2011).

Today is the birthday of Sherman Alexie (1966) (books by this author). He was born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He was born with hydrocephaly, excess fluid on the brain, and underwent surgery at six months. Doctors didn't expect him to survive, but he did; apart from some childhood seizures, he made a full recovery.

The book that made him famous was his first collection of short stories, called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). He adapted one of the stories into a screenplay for the movie Smoke Signals (1998). Smoke Signals was the first commercial feature film entirely written, directed, and acted by Native Americans. He's also written a young adult novel called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), for which he earned a lot of acclaim and money; so far, he's refused to sell the film rights, though. "My concern was that they would never have been able to find an Indian kid who could act well enough and who was a good enough basketball player to play me," he quipped in a 2009 interview. "I'd rather see myself played by a Puerto Rican or an Italian with a tan than have them ruin the basketballness of me."

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




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