I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
“What I Learned from My Mother” by Julia Kasdorf from Sleeping Preacher. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of American poet Frank O’Hara (books by this author), born Francis Russell O’Hara in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1926, or rather, it’s the day that Frank O’Hara celebrates his birthday. He was actually born in March, but his parents lied to him and said he was born three months later, to keep him from finding out he was conceived before they were married.
He was interested in the visual as well as the literary arts, and got a job at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, first at the front desk, where he would write poems in between selling postcards and tickets, and later as a curator. He worked there until his death. He also served as editor for Art News magazine from 1953 to 1955, and often contributed art criticism to the magazine. He drew poetic inspiration from the paintings of his friends Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and Jackson Pollock, as well as other non-literary sources like free-form jazz. He described his work as “I do this I do that” poetry because he felt it read like a diary.
He was killed in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island, New York, when he was 40 years old.
It’s the birthday of the poet and short story writer Paul Laurence Dunbar (books by this author), born in Dayton, Ohio (1872). He was the one of the first African-American writers to gain popular recognition for his work. His father was a slave who had fled the South on the Underground Railroad and later fought in the Civil War as a Union soldier. His mother had been a slave until the end of the Civil War.
Dunbar was the only black student at his high school in Dayton, Ohio, but he was elected president of his class and editor of the high school newspaper. After high school, none of the newspapers in town would give him a job, so he supported himself as an elevator operator. He read and wrote poems while standing in the elevator stall, waiting for passengers. In 1862, the Western Association of Writers had a meeting in Dayton, and Dunbar’s high school English teacher arranged for him to give the welcoming address. He read a poem that so impressed the audience that they invited him to become a member of the association. One of the people in the audience wrote an article about his poetry that was printed in newspapers around the country.
Dunbar published his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy, in 1892, and he sold it himself to elevator passengers in his elevator. The following year, he was invited to read his poetry at the World's Fair in Chicago. He went on to publish several more collections, including Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) and Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), before his death of tuberculosis when he was just 33.
Today is the birthday of poet Lucille Clifton (books by this author), born Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York (1936). She grew up in nearby Buffalo, the daughter of a steelworker and a laundress. Lucille’s mother, Thelma, had only an elementary school education, but she was a gifted poet herself, and was offered the chance to publish her work. Lucille’s father, Samuel, wouldn’t allow it, and he made her throw her poems into the fire. It made such an impression on Lucille that she later wrote a poem about it, called “fury”: “her hand is crying. / her hand is clutching / a sheaf of papers. / poems. / she gives them up. / they burn / jewels into jewels.”
In 1958, she married Fred Clifton, a philosophy professor and sculptor. Clifton often wrote poetry at the family’s kitchen table, an island of peace amid the bustle and chaos of their six young children. That book was called Good Times (1969), and the New York Times named it one of the 10 best books of that year. Many more volumes of poetry followed. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for two separate books in the same year: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir (1987), and Next: New Poems (1987). She won the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats (2000).
She also wrote several books about African-American history and heritage for young readers. “Children [...] need both windows and mirrors in their lives: mirrors through which you can see yourself and windows through which you can see the world,” she explained. “And minority children have not had mirrors. That has placed them at a disadvantage. If you want to call white children majority children — [they] have had only mirrors. That has placed them at a disadvantage also.”
It’s the birthday of Helen Keller (1880) (books by this author), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was 19 months old, she came down with an illness — possibly scarlet fever — that left her blind and deaf. Alexander Graham Bell examined her when she was six years old and sent Anne Sullivan, a 20-year-old teacher at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, to help her. Sullivan stayed with Keller until she (Sullivan) died in 1936.
Keller moved to New York when she was 13 and attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. She was admitted to Radcliffe in 1899. She published her first of 14 books, The Story of My Life, in 1902. She loved being on stage; she starred in a silent film about her life, called Deliverance (1919), and she also went on vaudeville tours for several years, which she enjoyed a great deal. Not so Anne Sullivan, however, and Keller retired from the stage when her teacher no longer felt up to accompanying her.
Though history tends to portray her simply as an inspirational figure struggling with and overcoming the adversity of her handicaps, she tended to place her battles firmly in the political arena. In 1909, she joined the United States Socialist Party, and she supported Eugene V. Debs in his presidential campaigns. She joined the radical International Workers of the World in 1912, visiting workers in appalling conditions. “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums,” she said. “If I could not see it, I could smell it.” She also campaigned for women’s suffrage. She protested against World War I, and was one of the first members of the American Civil Liberties Union.