Aug. 5, 2012

French Lesson

by Rosemary Okun

I wanted to know
the language of my ancestors
I wanted to know what they said
when they made love
and when they spoke to the neighbors
I wanted to know how
they spoke to their children
and what my great-great-grandfather said
when he stubbed his toe

But ancestry is who your mother was
and mine came from Brooklyn
with a grandmother from Syracuse
who said Glory be to God
when someone dropped a cup
and Bless me Father
when she confessed

My ancestors went by shanks mare
and shouted give him the hook
if they were displeased
They ate apple pie and
their potatoes were Idahos

"French Lesson" by Rosemary Okun, from An Imperfect Life. © Classical Music Today, LLC., 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the writer Guy de Maupassant (books by this author), born near Dieppe, France (1850). He took up writing after a tour in the Franco-Prussian War, and joined the literary scene in Paris, where he was mentored by Gustave Flaubert.

He went on to write more than 300 short stories and six novels, including Le Horla (1887), about a mad gentleman convinced he is being hunted by vampire-like creatures. Maupassant had contracted syphilis as a young man and would himself degenerate into madness and paranoia near the end of his life. He died in an asylum in Passy, Paris in 1893.

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Don't own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire." That's writer Wendell Berry (books by this author), born in Henry County, Kentucky (1934), the son of a lawyer and tobacco farmer. His ancestors on both sides farmed the county for five generations. After going off to college and teaching creative writing in the Bronx for a couple of years, Berry joined that lineage, purchasing a 125-acre homestead near the birthplace of his parents, where he still farms and writes poetry, novels, and essays. From his outpost, Berry tackles the intersection of civic life and the natural world, writing that "essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the land."

His eight novels, including Jayber Crow (2000) and Hannah Coulter (2004), together with his many short stories, form a saga of a small fictional Kentucky town called Port William. Through the lives of the townspeople, Berry explores the costs of war, the effects of farm policy, and the challenges and pleasures of community.

Berry wrote: "The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it."

And: "Every day do something that won't compute [...] Give your approval to all you cannot understand [...] Ask the questions which have no answers. Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years [...] Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts [...] Practice resurrection."

It's the birthday of Conrad Aiken (books by this author), born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). His parents were wealthy New Englanders who had moved south for his father's medical practice. When he was 12, with no warning or explanation, his father became increasingly emotionally unstable and violent. He woke one morning to the sound of gunshots and discovered the bodies of his parents — his father had shot his mother before turning the gun on himself. Aiken went to live with an aunt in Massachusetts where he attended private New England schools before entering Harvard. He started writing a poem a day, always changing the form, paying little attention to the content. He met T.S. Eliot through the literary magazine and the two developed a lifelong friendship, bonding over literature, drinking, and Krazy Kat comics.

In 1952, Aiken published his autobiography Ushant, all about the trauma of his childhood, and his own attempt at suicide, his affairs, and many literary friendships. Towards the end of his life, he returned to his hometown Savannah to live until his death in 1973 at the age of 84.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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