Mar. 10, 2012

A Cold Rain the Day Before Spring

by Stuart Kestenbaum

From heaven it falls on the gray pitted ice
that has been here since December.
In the gutter rivulets erode piles
of dirt and road salt into small countries
and the morning is so dark, in school

teachers turn on fluorescent lights
and everyone comes in smelling of damp wool.
From heaven it falls, just the opposite
of prayer, which I send up
at the traffic light: please

let me begin over again, one
more time over again, wipe the slate
clean, the same way after school
janitors, keys jangling from
belt loops, will use a wet rag and wipe

the school day off, so there is only
the residue, faint white on the smooth
surface. It's the same way
the infield looks before the game
begins, or the ice on a rink

between periods. All new again
for the moment and glistening.
Imagine each day you get to start
again and again. Again. How many
days does the janitor enter the room

of your soul, wipe it clean
go out into the hallway
and push his broom
down the long corridor, full
of doors to so many rooms.

"A Cold Rain the Day Before Spring" by Stuart Kestenbaum, from Pilgrimage. © Coyote Love Press, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of lexicographer Henry Fowler (books by this author), born in Tonbridge, England, (1858). Fowler was a schoolmaster for a while, then went to live on the island of Guernsey, off the coast of Normandy, where his younger brother Frank was a tomato farmer. Frank lived in a stone cottage, and Henry built another one less than 200 feet away.

The Fowler brothers collaborated on a book about grammar and punctuation, called The King's English (1906). The King's English was a big success, so the Oxford University Press commissioned them to edit an abridged Oxford English Dictionary. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1911) has been in print ever since.

After Frank died of tuberculosis, Henry wrote a book about style, word usage, and good writing. He came down on the side of direct, vigorous style, opposing the convoluted, pedantic, and arcane. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was published in 1926, and it quickly set the standard for language and style. Winston Churchill ordered one of his officers to consult it when the man confused the proper usage of intense and intensive.

He wrote: "Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners."

It was on this day in 1965 that Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple (books by this author) opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York City, starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney as Oscar and Felix, who become roommates after their marriages fall apart. Oscar is a recently divorced sportswriter, a total slob, relishing his new apartment. At one of his Friday-night poker games, Felix shows up, devastated because his wife has just kicked him out. Oscar invites him to share the apartment, but the two men's styles couldn't be more different. Felix wants everything neat and clean, he cries freely in front of women when he thinks about his wife, and despite Oscar's best coaching, he isn't good at throwing things against the wall in anger.

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist David Rabe, (books by this author) born in Dubuque, Iowa (1940). He was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He didn't actually fight — he worked in a hospital unit and did paperwork. He said: "Barriers were down; restrictions were down; behavior outside the norms. There was this giddy thing. You could go around one corner and see something horrible, around another and see something thrilling. It was a little like the Wild West."

After his discharge, he went back to grad school. He said, "Something in the army experience had knocked out of me whatever was tying me up and inhibiting writing. I found I didn't have the patience to write prose. But plays would overtake me, almost explode out of me."

He wrote a trilogy of plays about Vietnam: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1971), and Streamers (1976). Sticks and Bones (1969) is the story of a blind Vietnam veteran who comes home to a family who does not understand him anymore — his parents are named Ozzie and Harriet, a nod to a popular sitcom. Sticks and Bones won the Tony Award for best play.

His most recent work is the novel Dinosaurs on the Roof (2008), the story of Bernice, a 70-year-old born-again Christian widow in an Iowa suburb. Her best friend has recently died, so she asks that friend's grown daughter Janet — divorced, unemployed, and addicted to drugs and alcohol — to take care of her cats and dogs when the Rapture comes.

David Rabe said: "I get a sentence, an idea, an image, and I start. I don't know anything beyond it. I follow it."

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




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