Thursday Apr. 28, 2016

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Old Roses

When my father met my mother
at a dinner party in a garden of very old roses
on Beacon Hill one hot evening
in early June, he said to his friend, F. Morton
Smith, that night, “Morton, I have met
the girl I’m going to marry!”
                                                   (We have Uncle Morton’s
testimony for that, the certified word
of a Boston lawyer.)
                                     My mother
said my father had looked handsome, yes,
and talked delightfully, but what she remembered
were the mosquitoes. “If you stopped slapping at them,
even for a second, you were eaten up
            My father courted her
for the next ten years, whenever they found themselves
in the same place. It was the twenties then,
heyday of ocean liners, and she might be
in Paris, or maybe off getting
run away with by a hairy, two-humped camel
in the Gobi Desert, while he was crossing
the Pyrenees on foot; but, at last, on another
steamy hot day in Massachusetts, as she,
still wet from the bath, lay naked upstairs
on her sister’s bed, she heard the wedding march
start up on the grand piano
directly below her. She sprang to her feet,
threw on her cream-colored dress with a dipping hemline,
and flung herself down the narrow old staircase
straight into the arms of matrimony—which were wearing
an English jacket of dark blue wool for the occasion,
splendid, but unendurable.
                                                    Would anyone say
the marriage was a happy one? I don’t think
I know. Sometimes. Perhaps. I can’t imagine
either of them with anyone else. Years later, I,
a greedy child, crouched in the dark cabinet
under the attic stairs, and wolfed down
the last slice of their wedding cake, dried out fruitcake
in a little box covered with silver paper
and lined with paper lace, a keepsake
for wedding guests to slip under their pillows
that night so that they, too, would dream the bright moon
rolling her way through silver light, singing stars
clustering under the clouds.
                                                     Those crumbs
became the bones in my seven-year-old body—
and they’re in there yet—while the dreams
sing on in my head forever, like mosquitoes
whining among the leaves of thorny old roses.

“Old Roses” by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R. Godine, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Harper Lee (books by this author), born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama (1926). Childhood friends described Lee as the “Queen of the Tomboys,” unafraid to get in playground fights with boys. Sometimes she beat up the boys who were bullying Truman Capote, who spent summers with relatives in Monroeville, and became one of Lee’s closest friends. Capote’s aunt later wrote: “A dress on the young Nelle would have been as out of place as a silk hat on a hog.”

At Monroe County High School, Lee had a wonderful English teacher named Miss Gladys Watson. Miss Watson demanded that her students abide by the “three Cs” in their writing: clarity, coherence, and cadence. To emphasize these three points, she asked them to read all their work aloud to the class; and they were expected to rewrite their essays to her complete satisfaction. Miss Watson introduced her students to 19th-century British literature, which Lee loved — she especially adored Jane Austen. Years later, she told an interviewer: “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” She went on to the University of Alabama, but felt like a misfit. She began a law program, encouraged by her father, a successful lawyer. But she didn’t like law, and quit after a year. Instead, in 1949, 23-year-old Lee followed her old friend Truman Capote to New York City, where she hoped to become a writer.

She got a job as an airline reservations agent. She rented a small, cold-water-only apartment on the Upper East Side, where she wrote every night at a makeshift desk made from a door set across sawhorses. When she moved to New York, Capote asked his friend Michael Brown, a composer, if he would look after Lee, whom he described as “a shy friend from Alabama.” Lee became close friends with Brown and his wife, Joy, and they recommended a well-respected husband-and-wife team of literary agents. In November of 1956, Lee brought them five short stories. They liked one of them, called “Snow-on-the-Mountain,” but dismissed the other four. They thought she had potential, though, and suggested that she try writing a novel, which would have more commercial promise. After meeting her, one of the agents wrote in an office memo: “The author is a nice little Suth’n gal — from Alabama — who says ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am.’”

A few weeks later, for Christmas of 1956, Michael and Joy Brown gave Lee a huge gift: enough money to quit her job and spend the year writing. She wrote to a friend: “Aside from the et ceteras of gratefulness and astonishment I feel about this proposition, I have a horrible feeling that this will be the making of me, that it will be goodbye to the joys of messing about.” In mid-January, she delivered her agents the first 50 pages of a novel called Go Set a Watchman. She delivered another 50 pages each week until the first draft was finished. They helped Lee focus the novel more on the character of the lawyer father, retitled the manuscript Atticus, then sent it off to an interested publisher, the J.B. Lippincott publishing house. Lippincott published mostly textbooks, but their one female editor saw potential in Lee’s novel. That editor encouraged Lee to rewrite the novel to focus on the childhood of the main character, Scout; Lee spent two years rewriting the book under her editor’s scrutiny, and finally produced a final version, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). She did not publish another piece of writing until last year, when she published the novel Go Set a Watchman (2015). Lee passed away earlier this year at the age of 89.

It’s the birthday of playwright Robert Anderson, born in New York City (1917). His father, a business executive, was a distant man, and sent his son off to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy. Anderson was lonely there, and he fell in love with an older woman. He went to Harvard, fought in the Navy, and then started writing plays.

He thought back to his time at Exeter, and he wrote a play about a lonely and sensitive young man named Tom at an all-boys’ boarding school. Tom’s classmates decide that he is gay and make his life miserable. His one friend is Laura, the wife of a faculty member, who is supposed to offer him tea and sympathy but ends up sleeping with Tom. The play was called Tea and Sympathy (1953), and it was a big hit on Broadway, and then turned into a popular film.

When Anderson’s mother found out that the actress Deborah Kerr was going to star in the film, she said, “It must be a much better play than I thought it was.” When his father went to see Anderson’s play Silent Night, Lonely Night (1959), starring Henry Fonda, he said loudly in the audience: “No matter how bad this is, I’m going to tell the poor boy I liked it.”

Anderson’s other plays include You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running (1967) and I Never Sang for My Father (1968).

He said: “The mission of the playwright is to look in his heart and write, to write whatever concerns him at the moment; to write with passion and conviction. Of course the measure of the man will be the measure of the play.”

It’s the birthday of poet Carolyn Forché (books by this author), born in Detroit (1950). She was one of seven children, and she described herself as a “junkheap Catholic.” She wrote her first poem when she was nine, and her mother, who had written poems herself, encouraged her daughter. Forché went to college and graduate school, and her first book of poems, Gathering the Tribes (1976), was selected for the Yale Younger Poets Award. She traveled to Spain to translate the work of an exiled Salvadoran poet named Claribel Alegría. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship and was right on track to become a poet and an academic.

She was living in California, teaching writing, when one day a dusty truck with Salvadoran license plates pulled up in her driveway. It was the nephew of Claribel Alegría, the poet whose work Forché had translated. She said: “A man emerged from the truck carrying a roll of white paper, a fistful of pencils and a black-and-white Guatemalan woven bag full of books and papers. He walked into my house like he owned the place and asked me to clear off my dining-room table ... and announced ‘We have work to do.’ He put his books and papers down ... and didn’t leave my house for three days and three nights.” He knew that she had won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he had decided she was the writer who should come to El Salvador and document life in that country, which was on the brink of civil war. She told him that he would be better off with a journalist than a poet, because Americans would not pay attention to poetry, but he was adamant.

So in 1978, Forché went to El Salvador, and in 1979 the country erupted into war. Forché traveled around the country, meeting revolutionaries and military leaders, documenting the suffering she saw everywhere. She returned to the United States and tried to publish her new poems about El Salvador, but publishers refused. They didn’t want political poems. Some agreed to publish the collection if she would tone down her poems or balance them out by including ones that were less political. She said, “I thought of the work I was doing as a matter of ethics rather than politics as I understood it, and the purpose of my poetry was poetry.” Finally, with the help of novelist Margaret Atwood, Forché found a publisher, and her book The Country Between Us (1981) was a best-seller. She has written just two books of poetry since then: The Angel of History (1994) and Blue Hour (2003).

She said: “No one is a great poet because she is a miserable drunk. No one is a great poet because he has had a nervous breakdown. Suffering, however, can be experienced as a curse or a blessing; the luckiest is the one who can experience it as a blessing.”

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