May 22, 2012


by Stephen Dobyns

A woman travels to Brazil for plastic
surgery and a face lift. She is sixty
and has the usual desire to stay pretty.
Once she is healed, she takes her new face
out on the streets of Rio. A young man
with a gun wants her money. Bang, she’s dead.
The body is shipped back to New York,
but in the morgue there is a mix-up. The son
is sent for. He is told that his mother
is one of these ten different women.
Each has been shot. Such is modern life.
He studies them all but couldn’t find her.
With her new face, she has become a stranger.
Maybe it’s this one, maybe it’s that one.
He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?
He presses their hands to his cheek.
Which ones consoled him? He even tries
climbing into their laps to see which
feels the most familiar but the coroner stops him.
Well, says the coroner which is your mother?
They all are, says the young man, let me
take them as a package. The coroner hesitates,
then agrees. Actually, it solved a lot of problems.
The young man has the ten women shipped home.
then cremated them all together. You’ve seen
how some people have a little urn on their mantel?
The man has a huge silver garbage can.
In the spring, he drags the garbage can
out to the garden, and begins working the teeth,
the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.
Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.
They grew straight from seed, so fast and big
that the young man is amazed. He takes the first
ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,
he sees his mother’s breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries and he flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation, think of the ravenous kisses.

May 6, 2012

Karen Blixen: The Kenya-Wisconsin Connection

When I was growing up in Nairobi, the name of Karen Blixen naturally came up quite often. The neighborhood in what used to be her old farm, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, is to this day called Karen, and everyone, of course, had read Out of Africa (even before the movie came out). My violin teacher, Anna Martin, was the wife of Remy Martin, who had bought Blixen's farm. I read Out of Africa and Shadows in the Grass and her cook Kamante's memoir Longing for Darkness when I was twelve or thirteen, and enjoyed them (though they weren't nearly as evocative as Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika). In 1982, Judith Thurman's wonderful biography Isak Dinesen: Life of a Storyteller came out, and  in 1985 the movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and suddenly she epitomized the romantic notion of Africa. Her house remains a massive tourist draw.

Partly because I was tepid on Out of Africa and partly because of her new fame, I ignored Blixen's other writings till I was in my twenties. Then I discovered Seven Gothic Tales on a bookshelf in Atbara, Sudan. What a revelation! "The Roads Round Pisa" and "The Monkey" are, in my opinion, the two finest, strangest stories ever written. I reread them every year - they're like a little holiday to an exotic country.

When we moved to Wisconsin a couple years ago, I remembered that Blixen's father, Wilhelm Dinesen, had lived in northern Wisconsin. He'd spent a year or so with the Chippewa, had a relationship with his cook, Nesuw-wge-zhicqo-quay (later "Kate"), fathered a daughter, Emma "Denson," by her, and contracted syphilis. His cabin has recently been restored, and is open to the public. You can see a picture of Joseph Ackley, Wilhelm Dinesen's great-grandson, and Blixen's ... what? half-grand-nephew? here. I think he looks a bit like her!