Tuesday Jul. 5, 2016

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She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm

my mother wants me to
go to college

the closest she has ever been
is this
the dorm

her father had needed her
to dig the potatoes
and load them into burlap bags

but here she is
leaving her daughter

on the campus in the city time to go
we are at the desk
the clerk is wide-

eyed when my mother
asks her if she will
take an out-of-town check

if the need arises
if something comes up
so my girl will have money

even I know
this isn’t going to happen
this check-cashing

a clerk helping me with money
but miracle of miracles
the clerk says nothing

and I say nothing
and my mother feels better
we go to the parking lot

old glasses thick graying hair
she is wearing a man’s shirt
has to get back to the job

we stand beside her Ford and it is
here she undoes the buckle of the watch
and holds it out to me

my father’s watch
keeping good time for him
and then for her

she says she knows I will
need a watch to get to class
we hug and she gets in

starts the car
eases into traffic
no wave

the metal of the back of the watch

is smooth to my thumb
and it keeps for a moment
a warmth from her skin.

“She Gives Me the Watch off Her Arm” by Marjorie Saiser from I Have Nothing To Say About Fire. © The Backwaters Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the Polish-French harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, born in Warsaw (1879). She’s been called the “rediscoverer of the harpsichord,” because she revived interest in the instrument during the first half of the 20th century.

Landowska’s father was a lawyer and an amateur musician; her multilingual mother was the first person to translate Mark Twain into Polish. Landowska studied piano from the age of four. As an adult, she taught piano and harpsichord in Paris and Berlin. She began collecting antique keyboard instruments, and scoured libraries all over Europe for old musical manuscripts, which she copied. In 1903, she gave her first public performance on the harpsichord, and began a concert tour of Europe; in Russia, she performed for Leo Tolstoy. Although several composers wrote harpsichord pieces just for her, she was particularly fascinated by Johann Sebastian Bach and wanted to play his music in the most authentic way possible. In 1933, she made the first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord. Her longtime companion, Denise Restout, later described feeling “stunned” when she heard Landowska play the Variations. “It was like being in front of one of the greatest works of nature,” she wrote.

When the Nazis invaded France, Landowska’s house was looted and all of her instruments and manuscripts were stolen. She and Restout fled the country. She didn’t think the Nazi invasion would last long, so she only brought a couple of suitcases with her. Following an indirect route, they ended up on a ship to the United States, arriving on December 7, 1941. Ellis Island was chaotic because hundreds of Japanese people were being detained there. Landowska finally found a battered piano, and said, “We don’t know why we’re here or how long we’ll be here, so I can work.” They were finally allowed in the country after several prominent musicians wrote letters of support, and they eventually settled in Lakeville, Connecticut, where Landowska would live for the rest of her life.

On this date in 1946, the bikini was introduced in Paris. Two-piece swimsuits had been in vogue since the early 1940s, although they were relatively modest and always covered the navel. In the summer of 1946, designer Jacques Heim came up with a revealing two-piece outfit, which he called the atome: “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” But credit for the name goes to his competitor, French mechanical engineer-turned-swimsuit designer Louis Réard, who unveiled his design on July 5. He predicted that the skimpy swimwear would cause a cultural explosion to rival the recent nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, and that’s where he got the name that stuck. Réard couldn’t find a model who was willing to wear such a revealing outfit, so he had to hire an exotic dancer from the Casino de Paris. He got 50,000 fan letters, and famously stated in his ads that a swimsuit wasn’t really a bikini unless you could pass it through a wedding ring.

It took a while for the bikini to catch on in the United States, however. Modern Girl magazine opined in a 1957 issue: “It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.” But by 1960, it was big hit, and singer Brian Hyland had a hit of his own that year, with the song “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” In 1964, Sports Illustrated debuted its first swimsuit issue, and by 1965, only “squares” went to the beach in anything but a bikini.

The brief two-piece garment dates back much further than the 20th century, however. Roman mosaics and paintings depict women gymnasts in outfits that resemble the modern bikini, and historians have found evidence that a form of our modern bikini may have been popular in ancient Minoan civilizations about 3,600 years ago.

It’s the birthday of writer Gary Shteyngart (books by this author), born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia (1972). Shteyngart is best known for his sharp, satirical novels about the immigrant experience, such as The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002) and Absurdistan (2006). His father was an engineer in a camera factory, and his mother was a pianist. As a child, he was often ill with asthma and writing calmed him. When he was five, he wrote a 100-page comic novel.

Shteyngart’s family immigrated to Queens, where he struggled to learn English at a conservative Hebrew school. The other kids called him “The Russian,” and he struggled with American customs. He said: “I had fur coats and fur hats, and they smelled of various woodland animal-type smells. The teachers would take me aside and say, ‘Look, you can’t be this furry.’” His family had no television and Shteyngart didn’t lose his Russian accent until he was 14.

It was during a trip to Prague that he began writing what would become his debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which details the adventures of a group of young Russians from Alphabet City in Manhattan as they travel around Prague, which Shteyngart calls “Prava” in the book. He worked on it for five years while he was at Oberlin College, but he was too embarrassed to send it to agents, so he applied to graduate school instead. Chang-rae Lee, author of the novel Native Speaker, was sifting through applications to Hunter College’s MFA program when he stumbled upon Shteyngart’s novel. Impressed, he called Shteyngart and offered him a spot in the program, and also promised to send the book to his agent. Within months, Shteyngart had a book deal.

 The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was a best-seller. Shteyngart’s other books include Super Sad True Love Story (2010) and Little Failure: A Memoir (2014). It was while researching the memoir that he learned of his father’s violent, difficult childhood. He says, “I began to realize how one little trick of history could’ve created a very different world for both of us.”

Today is the birthday of Jean Cocteau (books by this author), born in Maisons-Laffitte, a resort town outside Paris, in 1889. His family was well-off, and they appreciated culture; they encouraged Cocteau in all his artistic aspirations, which were numerous. He wrote poems, essays, novels, plays, screenplays, and libretti for opera and ballet. He was a painter, an illustrator, a filmmaker, an actor, and a producer. He considered himself, first and foremost, a poet. “Take a commonplace, clean it and polish it, light it so that it produces the same effect of youth and freshness and originality and spontaneity as it did originally, and you have done a poet’s job. The rest is literature,” he wrote in A Call to Order (1926).

“Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work,” he advised writers and artists. “Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.”

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