Monday May 9, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

Country Fair

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,
It doesn’t matter.
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.

Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other two flapping behind,
Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us.
And that was the whole show.

“Country Fair” by Charles Simic from Hotel Insomnia. © Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Enovid for use as a birth control pill.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of The American Birth Control League — which later became Planned Parenthood — once said: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” Sanger was a former nurse who had seen firsthand the effect that multiple pregnancies had on women, particularly poor women. She had opened the first birth control clinic in 1916, and had been on the lookout for an affordable, safe, and convenient method of contraception for women. She joined forces with biochemist Gregory Pincus and gynecologist John Rock, and in 1953 she helped them get funding to develop a hormone pill that would prevent a woman’s ovaries from releasing an egg every month. The first clinical trials began in 1954.

The Pill became a central symbol of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. In its earliest form, it was nearly 100 percent effective when taken as directed, but it came with some serious side effects, including life-threatening blood clots. Researchers later figured out that the dosage was much stronger than it needed to be — 10 times stronger, in fact. They tinkered with the hormone formula and, by the 1980s, had come up with an effective, lower-dose formula that was much safer.

It’s the birthday of Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie (1860) (books by this author), the creator of “Peter Pan,” an impish boy who doesn’t want to grow up. Barrie was born in Angus, Scotland, the seventh of eight children. He was small in size and took refuge in books, particularly the penny dreadfuls and James Fenimore Cooper. Barrie graduated from Edinburgh University and published his first novel, Better Dead (1887), the first in a successful series of books set in Scotland.

When his marriage began to flounder in the late 1890s, he started taking long walks in London’s Kensington Gardens, where he met a group of young brothers. The Davies boys loved the way Barrie would wiggle his ears and play with them, and Barrie became a trusted family friend. He told the boys stories about a baby who could fly and would never grow up, and from there, he began writing the character of Peter Pan, partly inspired by the Davies boys and partly by the death of his older brother in a skating accident when Barrie was six.

Peter Pan first shows up in a story in Barrie’s collection The Little White Bird (1902). As a baby, he falls out of his carriage and is taken by faeires to Neverland. In Neverland, he can fly and is the champion of the Lost Boys. Barrie named the boys in the story after the Davies boys. He expanded the story of Peter into the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904), which was a rousing success. The actors used harnesses to fly around stage, which excited the audience. Peter in the play is much different from versions of Peter in later incarnations, like the 1953 Disney film. He’s somewhat malicious and selfish in the play and looks forward to dying, saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Barrie described Peter as a beautiful boy, “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees.”

In the play and the later novel, Peter and Wendy (1911), Peter Pan teaches the Darling children to fly using a combination of “lovely wonderful thoughts and fairy dust.” Barrie had to add fairy dust, he said, because, “After the first play, I had to add something at the request of parents about no one being able to fly until the fairy dust had been blown on him; so many children having gone home and tried it from their beds and needed surgical attention.”

After their parents died, Barrie became guardian to the Davies boys and dedicated the book Peter and Wendy (1911) to them. The preface reads: “I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame [...] That is all he is, the spark I got from you.” Though he wrote many other books in his lifetime, they were always overshadowed by Peter Pan.

When J.M. Barrie died, he left the copyright to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormand Street Hospital, which still benefits to this day.

It’s the birthday of the poet who once said, “Words make love on the page like flies in the summer heat and the poet is merely the bemused spectator.” That’s Serbian-American poet Charles Simic (books by this author), born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1938). He lived his early life in the tumult of World War II. When he was three, the first bombs began to fall on Belgrade, and his family was forced to evacuate their home several times over the next years. His father, who had Royalist sympathies, was repeatedly arrested, eventually fleeing to Italy. His mother tried several times to join him there, but she, Charles, and his brother were always turned away. Simic’s father made his way to the U.S. — alone.

Simic’s mother settled them in Paris, living in a small hotel room for a year while paperwork for America was being processed. Simic and his older brother attended school, where he was forced to memorize and recite poems by Baudelaire and Verlaine, whom he loved, but his accent made pronunciation difficult and recitation brought him to tears. His mother brought home Look and Life magazines, and he and his brother pored over the photos of shiny, new-model cars and girls in bathing suits.

About his childhood during wartime and his life in Paris, Simic said: “Being one of the millions of displaced persons made an impression on me. In addition to my own little story of luck, I heard plenty of others. I’m still amazed by all the vileness and stupidity I witnessed in my life.”

Eventually, the family was reunited in New York, and then moved to Chicago. Simic was 16. He secretly wanted to be a painter, but mostly stuck to poetry. He said, “I was just another high school kid who wrote poems in order to impress girls.” He never wrote in his native language, only English, explaining, “No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who reads her love poems in Serbian as they sip Coke.”

He read Rilke, Pound, and Apollinaire, graduated high school, and when there was no money for college, he moved to New York and worked as a parcel-packer, housepainter, and payroll clerk during the day while taking classes and writing poetry at night. His first poems were published in the Chicago Review (1959). Early editors found his work interesting, though many thought he was trying to be a smart aleck with his odd, short poems. For Simic, though, the process of putting together his poems reminded him of the game of chess he’d grown to love as a boy in Belgrade: “They depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate.”

His first book, What the Grass Saw (1967), received good reviews and made his name. Simic said: “I was happy to have a book, and at the same time, astonished by how ugly it was. It embarrassed me to show it to anyone.” The poems showed the first sparks of what would come to be his trademark style: terse, imagistic poems that found the extraordinary in the ordinary, like a spoon or an insect. One critic said his poems were “like tightly constructed Chinese puzzle boxes.”

He’s a constant reviser of his poems. “Even when I’m stretched out in my coffin, they may find me tinkering with some poem. Even published poems I won’t leave alone. I very rarely get it right in one go.”

Simic has taught at the University of New Hampshire since 1972. He’s written more than 60 books of poetry and nonfiction, including Somewhere Among Us a Stone is Taking Notes (1968), Dismantling the Silence (1972), Hotel Insomnia (1992), and A Fly in the Soup: Memoirs (2000). His latest collection is The Lunatic (2015). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The World Doesn’t End: Prose Poems (1989).

About writing poetry, Charles Simic says: “My fantasy goes like this: a reader, in a bookstore, browsing in the poetry section. They pull out a book and read a few poems. Then they put the book back. Two days later they sit up in bed at four o’ clock in the morning, thinking — I want to read that poem again! Where’s that poem? I’ve got to get that book.”

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