May 23, 2012

Church Fair

by Jane Kenyon

Who knows what I might find
on tables under the maple trees—
perhaps a saucer in Aunt Lois's china pattern
to replace the one I broke
the summer I was thirteen, and visiting
for a week. Never in all these years
have I thought of it without
a warm surge of embarrassment.

I'll go through the closets and cupboards
to find things for the auction.
I'll bake a peach pie for the food table,
and rolls for the supper,
Grandma Kenyon's recipe, which came down to me
along with her legs and her brooding disposition.
"Mrs. Kenyon," the doctor used to tell her,
you are simply killing yourself with work."
This she repeated often, with keen satisfaction.

She lived to be a hundred and three,
surviving all her children,
including the one so sickly at birth
that she had to carry him everywhere on a pillow
for the first four months. Father
suffered from a weak chest — bronchitis,
pneumonias, and pleurisy — and early on
books and music became his joy.

Surely these clothes are from another life—
not my own. I'll drop them off on the way
to town. I'm getting the peaches
today, so they'll be ripe by Saturday.

"Church Fair" by Jane Kenyon, from Let Evening Come. © Graywolf Press, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet Jane Kenyon (books by this author), born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (1947). She married fellow poet Donald Hall, whom she met as a student at the University of Michigan, where he was a professor. They lived in his family farmhouse in New Hampshire. Hall wrote: "[W]e got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn't ring all day. In January Jane dreamed of flowers, planning expansion and refinement of the garden. From late March into October she spent hours digging, applying fifty-year-old Holstein manure from under the barn, planting, transplanting, and weeding."

She published only four books of poetry before she died from leukemia at the age of 47. She was the state poet of New Hampshire at the time.

It's the birthday of children's writer Margaret Wise Brown (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1910). She loved reading as a child, and years later, she remembered all the stories she read, but none of the authors. She said: "It didn't seem important that anyone wrote them. And it still doesn't seem important. I wish I didn't have ever to sign my long name on the cover of a book and I wish I could write a story that would seem absolutely true to the child who hears it and to myself." Brown went on to write children's classics like The Runaway Bunny (1942) and Goodnight Moon (1947).

Brown never had children herself, but she worked with young children as a teacher in a progressive education program at the Bank Street Experimental School. She was also a New York socialite — tall and strong, with blond hair and bright green eyes. She dated the prince of Spain and loved to host parties in her Upper East Side apartment. She spent her first royalty check buying an entire cart's worth of flowers, and often took the proceeds from a book and purchased a ticket to France or a new car.

She died suddenly at the age of 42, energetic and adventurous up to the end. She was on a book tour in Europe when she was stricken with appendicitis and had an emergency appendectomy. She seemed to be recovering well, and she decided to show her doctor how good she felt — so she kicked up her leg in the can-can. It caused an embolism, and she died immediately.

She said: "A book should try to accomplish something more than just to repeat a child's own experiences. One would hope rather to make a child laugh or feel clear and happy-headed as he follows a simple rhythm to its logical end, to jog him with the unexpected and comfort him with the familiar; and perhaps to lift him for a few moments from his own problems of shoe laces that won't tie and busy parents and mysterious clock time into the world of a bug or a bear or a bee or a boy living in the timeless world of story."

It's the birthday of novelist Ursula Hegi (books by this author), born in Düsseldorf, Germany (1946). She said: "I grew up surrounded by evidence of war — bombed-out buildings, fatherless children, men who had legs or arms missing — yet when I tried to ask questions, my parents and teachers only gave me reluctant and evasive answers about the war. Never about the Holocaust."

When she was 18 years old, Hegi immigrated to the United States. She was embarrassed to tell people that she was German. She said: "I still really believed you can leave your country of origin behind and start your life anew. The older I get, the more I realize you can't do that." She went to school at the University of New Hampshire. Her first two published novels were set in the United States. But finally she decided that she could not completely ignore her past, and in 1990 she wrote Floating in My Mother's Palm, set in the fictional German town of Burgdorf. She wrote a second book about Burgdorf, this time centered on a woman with dwarfism named Trudi Montag. Trudi's physical appearance makes her an outsider in the village, and from that position, she watches the Nazis come to power in Germany and her fellow townspeople turn against their Jewish neighbors. That novel was Stones from the River (1994), and it became a best-seller. She said, "My own acute discomfort at being German is very much at the core of my writing."

Since then, she has written five more novels. She revises each book between 50 and 100 times. She said: "I go through that experience with the character. And after I have finished the story, on an emotional level, it has become my experience, and I am altered."

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




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