Nov. 16, 2011

The Day Beauty Divorced Meaning

by Leslie Harrison

Their friends looked shocked—said not
, said how sad. The trees carried on
with their treeish lives—stately except when
they shed their silly dandruff of birds. And
the ocean did what oceans mostly do—
suspended almost everything, dropped one
small ship, or two. The day beauty divorced
meaning, someone picked a flower, a fight,
a flight. Someone got on a boat.
A closet lost its suitcases. Someone
was snowed in, someone else on. The sun
went down and all it was, was night.

"The Day Beauty Divorced Meaning" by Leslie Harrison, from Displacement Poems. © Mariner Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of fiction author Andrea Barrett (1954) (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts. She describes her family as "unintellectual," and when she developed a passion for reading as a child, her father would tell her to "put the book down and go outside, act like a normal person," as she told The Paris Review in 2003. She would raid the Bookmobile on its weekly visits to her neighborhood; the driver let kids read from any shelf they could reach, and she was tall, so she was reading grown-up books at a young age. She attended middle school and high school very sporadically, and didn't graduate, but she had strong SAT scores and was accepted to Union College anyway; she was part of the second class of female students in what had previously been an all-male college. She earned a degree in Biology, and her novels and stories reflect her interest in science, particularly women in science.

She said: "I've never known a writer who didn't feel ill at ease in the world. ... We all feel unhoused in some sense. That's part of why we write. We feel we don't fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we're not of it. ... You don't need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world."

On this date in 1973, NASA launched the fourth and final Skylab mission. NASA's goal for the project was to find out if it was possible for humans to live and work in space for extended periods of time. The station itself was launched on May 14, 1973, and there were four missions with three crews; the first mission was unmanned and involved the launch of the station by a Saturn V rocket. The first crew spent 28 days aboard Skylab; the second, 59 days. The third and final crew, launched on this date, spent 89 days in space, a record that stood for more than 20 years. Skylab served as a solar observatory, a microgravity lab, a medical lab, and an Earth-observing facility. Astronauts on the fourth mission also observed Comet Kohoutek, which was passing near Earth at that time. NASA was also interested in whether quality of life could be maintained in a space station; the astronauts had two hours' free time every evening, during which they could play cards or darts, read, or listen to music. Skylab 4 commander Gerald Carr said, "The most fun was looking out the window."

NASA had originally planned for Skylab to continue orbiting for up to 10 more years while the Space Shuttle was being developed, but unexpectedly high solar activity — which heated the Earth's atmosphere and created excessive drag on the space station — caused Skylab to malfunction in 1977, and it eventually fell back to Earth in 1979. Pieces of it fell in the Shire of Esperance, near Perth in southwestern Australia; the Shire fined the United States 400 Australian dollars for littering. The fine remained unpaid for 30 years, until a radio host named Scott Barley raised the funds from his morning show listeners.

Today is the birthday of columnist, playwright, and director George S[imon]. Kaufman (1889) (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He held a variety of sales jobs before he became a writer; then Franklin Pierce Adams featured Kaufman's work in his column, and on F.P.A.'s recommendation, Kaufman was given a column of his own in 1912, for the Washington Times.

He was the drama critic for The New York Times from 1917 to 1930, and found his niche as a playwright during that period. Nearly all of his plays were collaborations. He worked with many of the best writers of the day, including Marc Connelly, Ira Gershwin, Moss Hart, and Edna Ferber, and co-wrote many hits, including Dinner at Eight (1932), You Can't Take it With You (1935), and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). He wrote only one play by himself: 1925's The Butter and Egg Man, a satire on the theater world. He was an apt satirist, but realized that the genre wasn't often a big moneymaker; he said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." He wrote musicals for the Marx Brothers, including Animal Crackers (1928) and A Night at the Opera (1935), and was one of the few writers that they approved of and even openly admired.

He loved playing poker and bridge, but was notoriously hard on his bridge partners. He was lean, morose, and a hypochondriac, and he had affairs with some of the most beautiful women on Broadway. His sharp wit also earned him a seat at the Algonquin Round Table, about which he quipped, "Everything I've ever said will be credited to Dorothy Parker." A sample of what he did say: "Epitaph for a dead waiter: God finally caught his eye." And, "I thought the play was frightful but I saw it under particularly unfortunate circumstances. The curtain was up."

It's the birthday of author Chinua Achebe (1930) (books by this author). He was born in Ogidi, Nigeria; his parents were evangelical Protestants, and he was named "Albert" after Queen Victoria's husband. When he went to university, he rejected his English name in favor of his more traditional Igbo middle name, "Chinua." He joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in 1954, and it was at this time that he wrote his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). It's the story of a powerful Igbo leader who meets his downfall when he refuses to take seriously the intrusion of the missionary church and the British system of government into his community. In the book, Achebe writes: "The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart." It's the most widely read book of African literature, and has been translated into 50 languages.

He describes himself as a cultural nationalist, but he nevertheless writes his books in English, and he has come under fire for his choice. In his essay "The African Writer and the English Language," he writes that colonialism — for all its evils — at least gives diverse communities "a language with which to talk to one another," and therefore he can reach people all across Nigeria, as well as the colonizers themselves. He told the Paris Review, "There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It's not one man's job. It's not one person's job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail — the bravery, even, of the lions."

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




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