Thursday Nov. 19, 2015

0:00/ 0:00

After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood

When you tilted toward me, arms out
like someone trying to walk through a fire,
when you swayed toward me, crying out you were
sorry for what you had done to me, your
eyes filling with terrible liquid like
balls of mercury from a broken thermometer
skidding on the floor, when you quietly screamed
Where else could I turn? Who else did I have? the
chopped crockery of your hands swinging toward me, the
water cracking from your eyes like moisture from
stones under heavy pressure, I could not
see what I would do with the rest of my life.
The sky seemed to be splintering, like a window
someone is bursting into or out of, your
tiny face glittered as if with
shattered crystal, with true regret, the
regret of the body. I could not see what my
days would be, with you sorry, with
you wishing you had not done it, the
sky falling around me, its shards
glistening in my eyes, your old, soft
body fallen against me in horror I
took you in my arms, I said It’s all right,
don’t cry, it’s all right, the air filled with
flying glass, I hardly knew what I
said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.

"After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for My Childhood” by Sharon Olds from Strike Sparks. © Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln got up in front of several hundred people at a new 17-acre national cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and spoke for only two minutes, delivering what has become one of the most memorable speeches in American history, the Gettysburg Address. It was the only speech, other than his inaugural addresses, that Lincoln gave during his entire presidency.

The Gettysburg Address begins: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It’s the birthday of poet Sharon Olds (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1942). When she was eight years old, her teacher asked the students to write poems, and Olds handed in a poem she had read in the post office, which began: “Neither wind nor rain nor gloom nor dark of night ...” When the teacher demanded to know whether she has written it, she explained that of course she had, because it was in her handwriting. It was the first time she realized that writing a poem meant actually making it up, not just writing it down. She said: “My early influences for good writing were the Psalms, and for bad writing were the Hymns. Four beats, the quatrains, that form. [...] I didn’t know until I was 55 that my craft was the craft of the Hymns I had grown up singing. I was writing in a way that felt comfortable to me.”

Her parents were unhappily married, and her father was physically abusive and an alcoholic. She said, “I grew up in a Calvinist, punitive atmosphere — hell featured in the future, punishment in the present.” She escaped her unhappy household at the age of 15, when she was sent to boarding school in Boston. She went on to Stanford, and after college she moved to New York City. She said: “All my life I wanted to get to the Empire State Building and put my arms around it and hang on. I’m in love with New York City. New York is so public. Every day you see a lot of strangers. And I like that. It’s the opposite of a little house in the woods.”

She got a Ph.D., studying Emerson, and the day she finished she decided to change course. She said: “I was walking away from Columbia with my Ph.D. in my pocket, and I was carrying a couple of children, and I was grinning from ear to ear. [...] I made a vow to myself: I’ll give up all that I’ve learned, all that this degree represents, just to do my own work and lead my own life. What I wanted to do was not let the poem escape, whether it was right or wrong, nice or nasty.” The feeling came to her as an epiphany, what she called a “vow to Satan.” She had been suffering from writer’s block, but the next day she wrote a handful of poems, and she didn’t stop for five years.

She wrote about her parents, about sex, about being a wife and mother. When she finally submitted her first poem to a literary magazine, she was rejected. She said: “They told me: ‘This is a literary magazine. If you wish to write about this sort of subject, may we suggest the Ladies’ Home Journal.” But she kept writing, and when she was 37 she published her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980). She said, “I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky.”

Olds went on to write many books of poetry, including The Dead and the Living (1983), The Father (1992), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), and most recently Stag’s Leap (2012) about the end of her 32-year marriage.

It was on this day that American poet and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) published The Raven and Other Poems (1845). Poe’s early life was difficult: he was orphaned at three and sent to live with a miserly tobacco merchant in Virginia who made sure Poe was well-educated, but didn’t care for his writerly tendencies. Poe mucked about for 20 years, earning a meager living writing stories while editing a number of journals, but he was frequently fired due to his excessive drinking.

He originally intended “The Raven,” with its famous refrain of “Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore,’” to be a short poem, but he kept adding to it over the course of a decade, finally finishing in late 1844, attaching the separate pages with sealing wax into a long, running scroll. The poem, about a talking raven’s mysterious visit to a distraught man, captured the public’s imagination and Edgar Allan Poe, for a time, became the most famous writer in America, though it didn’t improve his financial situation. The 100-page volume sold for 31 cents. Poe was invited to recite the poem in dimly lit parlors, reading in an otherworldly voice that titillated the guests. The poem proved so popular that a number of parody poems were written in response, such as “The Gazelle,” “The Turkey,” and “The Pole-cat.”

Though William Butler Yeats called the poem “insincere and vulgar [...] its execution a rhythmical trick,” and Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed it, saying, “I see nothing in it,” Poe had always intended the poem to be popular. He wrote to a friend, “To be appreciated, you must be read and these things are invariably sought after with avidity.”

The poem’s macabre, supernatural atmosphere influenced a number of writers, including Charles Baudelaire and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Poe is widely credited with inventing the genres of mystery and horror writing with stories like The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) and The Cask of Amontillado (1846). He died, penniless, after being found wandering the streets of Baltimore under the influence of consumption, alcohol poisoning, or opium — no one knows. He was 40 years old.

Poe said: “Literature is the most noble of the professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path.”

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Allen Tate (books by this author), born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899). His father was a businessman with interests in lumber, land, and stocks, and the family moved so often during Tate’s youth that he said, “We might as well have been living, and I born, in a tavern at a crossroads.” Tate is best known for his long poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” (1928), which he wrote after visiting a cemetery and feeling separated from his past.

It’s the birthday of Western novelist Jack Schaefer (books by this author), born in Cleveland, Ohio (1907). After he graduated from Oberlin College in 1929, he went to work as a journalist. It wasn’t until 20 years later that he made his reputation as a writer of Western novels. The first of his two dozen books about the Old West is also his best known, the classic Shane (1949), about a lone gunman who comes to the aid of a family of homesteaders in their struggle to hold onto their land.

Shane begins: “He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89. I was a kid then, barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuck-wagon. I was on the upper rail of our small corral, soaking in the late afternoon sun, when I saw him far down the road where it swung into the valley from the open plain beyond.”

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