Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Modest Imposition*

The title of my blog honors one of my favorite poems, My Last Duchess, by the British poet Robert Browning. At age thirteen, I stumbled onto Browning’s work while composing a paper about his wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she of “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” fame. Both writers became favorites, soon to be joined by scores of others, many of whom are far less classic in their approach to the language; all of whom inspire, describe, question, amuse, decry, or oftentimes just comfort.

Poetry is the platinum of wordsmiths. The brilliant Southern author Harry Crews, in whose Introduction to Literature course and Creative Writing classes at the University of Florida I was immeasurably lucky to have been enrolled long ago, said he believed a poem was the most challenging thing to write. He had a point: creating a novel is undeniably hard work, and a short story can be more so, both emotionally and editorially: its abbreviated length exhorts the writer to make every one of its handful of pages engaging and fully relevant; it forces him to make choices that often feel painful, cruel even. But with a poem, every word—every syllable—must not only shine like a jewel, but also fit within an impossibly cramped filigree of sentences, stanzas or rhymes already thickly studded with words of dire import.

So I cut my writer’s teeth on poems, most of them dreadful, many of them scribbled in the margins of my geometry notebook as I gazed out the window, theorems be damned (I recall reading that Sylvia Plath did the same thing, and while I covet her literary genius, I'm thankful to have avoided her fate). And how I loved that last class of the day: English. Sure, we also studied transformational grammar, etymology and spelling, but fortunately, we tenth-graders were blessed with a teacher—Ms. Carol Coleman—who loved poems (and stories and novels) enough to make literature, in all its forms, an ongoing and omnipresent feature. Who inspired more readers (and, I don’t doubt, writers) than you could shake a ballpoint pen at. And this was in a huge public high school in Miami (population when I attended: 4,500) that wasn’t computerized (!) or even air-conditioned.

My fondness for the poem My Last Duchess, I’d later come to realize, was really to do with my being so drawn to the spirit of its title character. The poem is narrated by her widowed husband as he woos the father of his next proposed marriage of convenience. While expounding on her portrait and the happy, blushing woman it depicts, he lets the prospective father-in-law—and the reader—in on a nasty little secret: he is a cold-hearted and materialistic cad who found his late wife’s optimism—indeed, her ability to find joy in every aspect of life—to be annoying at best, intolerable at worst:

…She had
A heart how shall I say? too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech…

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, in which your humble Bloggeress has put the last small boy to bed and finds herself responding to a friend’s email in the middle of the night, always a gorgeously quiet and indulgent time for mothers in general, writing mothers in particular.

…To answer your question, no, I still haven’t got used to being the only woman in a house full of men, and I suspect I never will. They’re utterly wonderful, but they’re wild beyond description—here, chaos isn’t a theory; it’s a daily reality. The fighting can escalate in a split-second: oftentimes the flashpoint is some tiny plastic creature or piece of Lego that would have no significance or desirability whatsoever if it weren’t, at that moment, wanted by someone else.

No, wait, I can sum it up in two words: underwear everywhere.

The love in my house is palpable and sticky and offered in generous helpings. I'm the only woman in this place! But I don’t exactly feel like a queen (yet).

Off to bed, then. With best wishes, I am

Deborah, the Duchess of Testosteronia

When I decided to screw up my courage and publish my own blog, I spent a long time pondering what to call it. Ultimately, The Last Duchess was the only real choice: it’s a nod toward the laughable self-righteousness I often affect while trying to keep my balance on the wobbly pedestal of womanhood, and it's also a way to honor the multifaceted interests and eternal optimism of Browning’s character. Finally, it’s my hope that readers won’t assume I’m hinting at royal pretensions—nothing could be further from my intentions!—but rather, will infer some sense of my awe at the creative geniuses past and present who walk among us, as well as my love and respect for family and literature alike, and my faith that a bright future awaits both.

* du'chess (-tsh-), n. Duke's wife or widow; imposing woman.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1942.


  1. Deborah, you're beautiful. Wowsers.

  2. *blushes* Aww, thanks...

    B&W is a godsend, m'dear (I swear it's why those actresses of Days Gone By look so damned good all the time. That, and the boning in their dresses. The corset boning, I mean...). B&W camouflages all manner of stuff like tanned arms that don't match one's heavily SPF'd face, not to mention the lovely effect of the camera's flash washing out those annoying little wrinkles.

    Like you have to worry, my pretty!

  3. Zoiks, what a hottie!

    Welcome, sweetie! You're linked in Spudville, and I'm really looking forward to everything you have to say. Cheers!

    One of us! One of us!

  4. Thank you, Spudsy. I will be linking to you and Tart and all the other Shakers once I learn how to do blogrolling. Baby steps, baby steps... said litbrit the Luddite.

  5. i liked you before i knew you were hot. browning was a mensch and a damn fine poet. glad you're up and running. i'll be looking in. advertising is what has fed this shameless jingle whore well for years. hooray for the commercials.

  6. Welcome, Stephen! (Now you've got me wondering what jingles you wrote that I might have heard...).

    Advertising was a terrific major--at UF, you had to take a full complement of lit classes and declare a "minor", also. I did two of those--English and Theatre. But after I graduated in 1981, there simply weren't any copywriting jobs in Florida; Reaganomics had the effect of stalling the economy (it seemed that way, at least). I thought I'd try my hand at being a flight attendant and applied at Delta Airlines and Air Florida (the airline that later sank, literally), but neither company was hiring. My choices were: move to New York, Chicago, or Atlanta (still don't know why I didn't just take the plunge and do that, but in retrospect I daresay I'm glad I didn't, in a Sliding Doors kind of way); take a low-paying job selling advertising space at one of the smaller Florida papers or magazines (tried that, and hated it); or work my way through a series of soul-crushing, mind-numbing McJobs (hated those, too--profoundly).

    Eventually I got a job as a "girl Friday" at a small ad agency. The pay was silly-low, but the duties were wonderfully varied: copywriting, copyediting, costume and prop sourcing, telephone answering, typing, and working with a slew of funny and wildly creative people.

    Ultimately I applied to a few law schools, but the only ones that accepted me were out of state (the competition for a spot in one of Florida's handful of law schools was, and is, intense). And shortly before I was due to leave for California, I met the guy I'd later marry and settle down with here in Florida. "Settle down" being a relative term, of course.

    Hooray for commercials indeed! We Brits have done a few fantastic ones over the years, but the current favorite Chez Litbrit (remember, it's nearly an all-boy house) is the Budweiser Magic Fridge ad....

  7. i'm a more street walkerish level in the jingle biz. i am a musician. i play strings, guitars, banjos, violin, (ok ok in my hands fiddle) mandolin, harp (the angel axe not harmonica) stringy stuff. it's a decent living, even moreso with the advances of the internet. now i get faxed charts, record to the computer, squirt it over broadband, their machine calls my bank's machine and i get paid without having to get out of my jammies. i have written and arranged some, but not to a point where i could call myself composer or arranger. jingles are harder work than people realize, you usually have 20 seconds to make a complete statement. it takes a special talent. my skills lie more in the craft end. i sight read like a fiend and don't waste a producer's time. i dig the magic fridge one too, but it needed some catchy music.

  8. I imagine creating a jingle is a bit like writing a poem, in that you've got a very specific time frame in which to make your impact, so every note (or word, as it were) must be 100%, spot-on effective.

    So writers aren't the only ones who work in our PJ's, huh!

  9. Sometimes in life you really get lucky.

    I don't mean buying a winning lottery ticket, that is mathematical luck, I mean the kind that dreams are made of..... will I marry my fantasy girl, or settle for another.
    Will I wake up next to such a person twenty years later and still get that warm fuzzy feeling you got the first sleep over, yeah, it could be luck.
    What if.... you also, had the support of that person who did not step on your dreams, and would support you as no one ever had, and sent you out to fulfill them, all. Maybe...
    What if... the same person gave you joy that could never be measured, three times.... Sure, could be.
    What if... this person supported your crazy hobbies, like shark diving, racing prototype cars, an off-shore speed boat, and even helps you source them, as a guy, damn lucky,
    What if... her friends were more cool than yours, Pulitzer prize, movies, novels, and science, and a handful of true friends in a community that support their love of the written word, deep passionate friends, yes, that exposure to the other world is real luck for those of us who struggle with a simple sentence.
    What if... you were able to see inside this person, and then see her grow by writing about the fears, phobias and experiences we all go thru as we like to say, mature.
    Yes it is luck.
    What if all she wants in return is true love, someone who understands her, and makes her feel like she is a real duchess, once and a while. Definitely.
    Luck has a face, a name, a heart, and a husband, who is very proud, as she reaches towards her dreams, and the acceptance amongst her peers. I can only hope I can offer her some of the luck she gave me, if she needs it.
    Sometimes luck finds each other, sometimes luck lets you keep it.
    Long live the Duchess, may all her dreams come true.

  10. *sniffs audibly*

    *swallows lump in throat*

    *mops up tears from keyboard*

    Silly old bear, my big Bambu.

    Millegrazie. For those beautiful words, and for everything you give me, every single day.

    Ti amo. Break a leg this weekend.