Apr. 16, 2012

The good old days at home sweet home

by Marge Piercy

On Monday my mother washed.
It was the way of the world,
all those lines of sheets flapping
in the narrow yards of the neighborhood,
the pulleys stretching out second
and third floor windows.

Down in the dank steamy basement,
wash tubs vast and grey, the wringer
sliding between the washer
and each tub. At least every
year she or I caught
a hand in it.

Tuesday my mother ironed.
One iron was the mangle.
She sat at it feeding in towels,
sheets, pillow cases.
The hand ironing began
with my father's underwear.

She ironed his shorts.
She ironed his socks.
She ironed his undershirts.
Then came the shirts,
a half hour to each, the starch
boiling on the stove.

I forgot bluing. I forgot
the props that held up the line
clattering down. I forgot
chasing the pigeons that shat
on her billowing housedresses.
I forgot clothespins in the teeth.

Tuesday my mother ironed my
father's underwear. Wednesday
she mended, darned socks on
a wooden egg. Shined shoes.
Thursday she scrubbed floors.
Put down newspapers to keep

them clean. Friday she
vacuumed, dusted, polished,
scraped, waxed, pummeled.
How did you become a feminist
interviewers always ask,
as if to say, when did this

rare virus attack your brain?
It could have been Sunday
when she washed the windows,
Thursday when she burned
the trash, bought groceries
hauling the heavy bags home.

It could have been any day
she did again and again what
time and dust obliterated
at once until stroke broke
her open. I think it was Tuesday
when she ironed my father's shorts.

"The good old days at home sweet home" by Marge Piercy, from Colors Passing Through Us. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist who wrote: "If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing." That's Kingsley Amis (books by this author), born in London (1922).

He made it big with his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954). Amis was inspired to write Lucky Jim after a visit with his good friend, the poet Philip Larkin, who worked at University College, Leicester, and lived on Dixon Drive there. Amis dedicated Lucky Jim to Larkin. It's the story of Jim Dixon, a young, lower-middle-class professor who teaches medieval history at a nice university. He is disgusted by the pretentious academics all around him, especially Professor Welch, the head of his department.

Amis wrote every day, and he tried to get through at least 500 words. He got up late and, still in his pajamas, read all the papers. Then he shaved, took a shower, wrote for a while in the early afternoon, and had lunch. He said: "If there's urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing — I really dislike afternoons, whatever's happening. But then the agreement is that it doesn't matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it's only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at six o'clock and one can get into second gear. I go on until about eight-thirty and I always hate stopping. It's not a question of being carried away by one's creative afflatus, but saying, 'Oh dear, next time I do this I shall be feeling tense again.'"

He wrote more than 20 novels, including That Uncertain Feeling (1955), Take a Girl Like You (1960), Ending Up (1974), and The Old Devils (1986). He also wrote books of poetry, a memoir, essays, and several books about drinking. In his book Everyday Drinking, he wrote: " The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings."

It's the birthday of novelist Anatole France (books by this author), born Jacques Anatole Thibault in Paris (1844). His father ran a bookstore called Librairie de France, so when Thibault started publishing, he signed his works "Anatole France" in tribute to his father's store. He was one of France's most popular novelists, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1921. His novels include The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881), At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque (1892), and Penguin Island (1908).

France said, "The books that everybody admires are those that nobody reads."

It's the birthday of essayist and short-story writer Carol Bly (books by this author), born Carol McLean in Duluth, Minnesota (1930). Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was 12, and all three of her older brothers were off fighting in World War II. She was sent to rural North Carolina to live with two aunts who were so nasty that the women they hired to clean their house told Carol they felt sorry for her. Bly later wrote that she was able to tell herself: "You were lucky to be sent down to live in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with ... mean aunt No. 1 and mean aunt No. 2. Lucky. Otherwise you'd have been brought up to be a minimally successful Duluth socialite."

Instead, she went on to Wellesley College, and she met the poet Robert Bly on a blind date. They were married in 1955 and moved to his family farm in western Minnesota. It was a rustic place, with no running water, but the couple's friends gravitated there, including poets Donald Hall, Bill Holm, and James Wright. They always had room for guests, but they made guests help out on the farm. She said: "The thing I loved about the farm was the un-ironical, unsneering kindness. I liked the way people didn't stand around when someone else was working, as the rich do. It's amazing how people pitched in. And I was pleased at the friendliness between men and women.'' She brought up four kids, took care of the house, worked on the farm, and worked with her husband on the literary journals The Fifties, The Sixties, and The Seventies. On top of all that, she wrote a monthly column called "A Letter From the Country" — those columns were eventually collected into a book, Letters from the Country (1981). She said: "I was strong, and I thought everybody was strong. Farm work is interesting, and I like hard work."

She and Robert Bly were divorced in the late 1970s, and she moved to St. Paul and went on to publish books of essays and stories, including Backbone (1985), The Tomcat's Wife and Other Stories (1991), Changing the Bully Who Rules the World (1996), and her only novel, Shelter Half (2008), which she finished in the final days of her life. She died of ovarian cancer in 2007.

She said: "Literature has low enough standards. But we can avoid writing the worst literature if we make ourselves ask ourselves, every two or three sentences we write, 'Is that what I really think?'"

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




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