Before the age of doing
and photographing and filming
and texting what you did,
back when people simply did,
a girl got married at seventeen,
recalled tonight under lamplight
in an Ozark farmhouse by my old,
widowed Aunt Dot, the woman
who once was her. There were no
photos of the girl as she waited
in the truck with her first
two babies for her husband
to come out of the bar
until it was dark, and then
in the dark. Nobody filmed him
at the screen door of the kitchen,
waking from the spell
of his anger with a lead pipe
in his hand saying, “I believe
I killed that cow,” or filmed her
stepping between his fists
and her son on the night he broke
her nose. Literal, plainspoken
and sorrowful, Dot seems
to find her, the poor young girl,
married for life, and him, my uncle,
the good old boy everyone loved,
including me, in the shadows
cast by her lamp and chair,
just the three of them there,
and me, and the small,
hand-held device of this poem.
“This Poem” by Wesley McNair from The Unfastening. © David R. Godine, 2017. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
On this date in 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. The first actual photograph had been made a couple of years earlier by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, but the quality wasn't very good and the plate had to be exposed for eight hours to capture the image. Daguerre worked with Niépce to develop a more practical method. He found that if he coated a copper plate with silver iodide, exposed it to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes, fumed it with mercury vapor, and then fixed it with a salt solution, he was able to capture a permanent image. He called the finished product a "daguerreotype." Many early photographers became ill, or even died, from mercury poisoning using this method. The daguerreotype was best suited for still objects, but people nonetheless lined up to have their portraits taken. This was not for the faint of heart: subjects had to sit in blazing sunlight for up to half an hour, trying not to blink, with their heads clamped in place to keep them still. It's not surprising that most of the early daguerreotype portraits feature grim, slightly desperate faces.
An early professional daguerreotype photographer remarked on people's reaction to their portraits: "People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone."
It's the birthday of poet Ogden Nash, (books by this author) born in Rye, New York, in 1902. He sold his first verse to The New Yorker in 1930 and published his first collection, Hard Lines, in 1931. All told, he produced 20 volumes of humorous poetry, wrote several children's books, and wrote the lyrics to two musicals: One Touch of Venus (1943) and Two's Company (1952).
He wrote, "O Duty, / Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie? / Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously? / Why art thou clad so abominously?"
And, "A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of."
And, "Every New Year is the direct descendant, isn't it, of a long line of proven criminals?"
And, "Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you."
Today is the birthday of memoirist Frank McCourt (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the oldest of seven children born to an Irish immigrant couple, and they moved back to Limerick when McCourt was four years old, after the death of his baby sister. His childhood was marked by poverty, the deaths of half of his siblings, and his father's alcoholism.
He went back to America when he was 19, and eventually served in the Korean War. After the war, he went to college at New York University on the GI Bill, even though he never graduated from high school, and he became a high school English teacher in New York City. He wanted to write a memoir for years, but he was too angry and bitter. Finally, while listening to his young granddaughter playing, he realized he had to write it from the viewpoint of his child self. And that became his best-selling book, Angela's Ashes (1996).