Saturday Apr. 30, 2016

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It was a kind of torture—waiting
to be kissed. A dark car parked away
from the street lamp, away from our house
where my tall father would wait, his face
visible at a pane high in the front door.
Was my mother always asleep? A boy
reached for me, I leaned eagerly into him,
soon the windshield was steaming.

Midnight. A neighbor’s bedroom light
goes on, then off. The street is quiet…

Until I married, I didn’t have my own key,
that wasn’t how it worked, not at our house.
You had to wake someone with the bell,
or he was there, waiting. Someone let you in.
Those pleasures on the front seat of a boy’s
father’s car were “guilty,” yet my body knew
they were the only right thing to do,

my body hated the cage it had become.

One of those boys died in a car crash;
one is a mechanic; one’s a musician.
They were young and soft, and, mostly, dumb.
I loved their lips, their eyebrows, the bones
of their cheeks, cheeks that scraped mine raw,
so I’d turn away from the parent who let me
angrily in. And always, the next day,

no one at home could penetrate the fog
around me. I’d relive the precious night
as if it were a bridge to my new state
from the old world I’d been imprisoned by,
and I’ve been allowed to walk on it, to cross
a border—there’s an invisible line
in the middle of the bridge, in the fog,
where I’m released, where I think I’m free.

“Desire” by Gail Mazur from Zeppo's First Wife. © University of Chicago Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, George Washington took the oath of office to become the first president of the United States. He chose to follow the oath with an inaugural address, as every president since then has done. He kept to generalities and concluded with a request for "divine blessing" on this fledgling nation.

It’s the birthday of writer Annie Dillard (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). She studied English at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, and after her sophomore year she married her poetry professor, Richard Dillard. She earned her Master’s with a thesis on Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

After she finished her master’s, Dillard became a “faculty wife.” She played a lot of softball and some pinochle; she wrote poetry and read books. One day, an alumna returned to campus to see Dillard’s husband, but he was busy. So Dillard took the woman on a stroll near their house. They lived in a suburban development in Roanoke, with a backyard leading down to a little stream called Tinker Creek. While she was showing her guest around, she realized that her boring neighborhood was actually full of wildlife, and beautiful in its own right. She began taking daily walks near her house. In an attempt to quit smoking, she took up journal-writing. She filled journals with observations from her walks, her thoughts on books, interesting facts, and anecdotes from her days. She eventually filled 20 journals.

One day she picked up a seasonal memoir called The Northern Farm (1949), which she found disappointing. She wrote in her journal a list of all the things she didn’t like about the book. She wrote: “Not only did nothing happen, okay, but there was no trace of mind. As a naturalist he didn’t teach me a thing. He didn’t even bother to look up fireflies. As an observer of the social scene, which is a boring thing to be in the 1st place, he’s ordinary and conservative. No imagination.” She thought to herself that she could write a better book, and immediately decided that she should try. She was excited to take the leap from poetry to prose; she said, “Poetry was a flute, and prose was the whole orchestra.”

She began sifting back through her journals, taking out the lines, ideas, and images that struck her most. Eventually, she had filled more than 1,000 notecards, which she moved around, trying to find an organizing pattern for her new book. She also struggled with her image as the narrator, since she was trying to follow in the footsteps of writers like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, solitary men alone in the wilderness. She said, “All of the books I took as models had been written by men,” and she agonized over whether anyone would be interested in the reflections of a suburban housewife. In the end, although she didn’t make up anything, she did leave out some major things, including her husband, and the fact that she lived in the suburbs and not in the wilderness.

In 1973, Dillard sent an essay — an excerpt from her new book — to Harper’s magazine, and it was pulled from the “slush pile” of unsolicited work and published. When she finished her book, Harper’s Magazine Press accepted it for publication. The editor in chief said, “I never expected to see a manuscript this good in my life.” Dillard was 28 years old when A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) was published, and it won the Pulitzer Prize later that year. Because she had not explicitly stated that she lived in a suburban neighborhood, many reviewers assumed that she had spent a year by herself in the wilderness. Dillard’s books include Holy the Firm (1977), Teaching a Stone To Talk (1982), An American Childhood (1987), The Writing Life (1989), and, most recently, The Abundance (2016).

She said: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. [...] Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

It’s the birthday of Alice B. (for Babette) Toklas (1877) (books by this author). Though she is best known as Gertrude Stein’s partner; she also wrote three books, none of which is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — that was the title Gertrude Stein gave her own autobiography, written from the point of view of her lover. And the term “lover” is unduly limiting: Toklas was also Stein’s typist, cook, secretary, editor, critic, housekeeper, and co-host of a series of salons that included such luminaries as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso, and Matisse.

It’s the birthday of poet and critic John Crowe Ransom (books by this author), born in Pulaski, Tennessee (1888). He was a member of the Fugitives — a group of Southern writers that also included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. And he was the founder of The Kenyon Review, and one of the most influential American literature professors of the 20th century. He was one of the first people to argue that American schools should be teaching American literature, not just European, and that students should be reading modern poetry, not just the classics.

Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was first published in serial form on this date in 1859. It appeared in the first issue of a new weekly journal, All the Year Round. Dickens founded the journal himself. He used it as a place to showcase serial fiction by the leading authors of the day, including himself. The journal cost tuppence, and had plenty of competition from several other literary journals that cropped up around that time: over a hundred new journals appeared that year alone. The government had done away with many taxes and fees on publishing, making it much more affordable to produce a journal, especially one that had no illustrations.

A Tale of Two Cities begins, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ...”

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