Saturday

Nov. 1, 2014

Anthem

by Jim Daniels

Two months after retirement
my father is here, to get away
from 6 A.M. and his cup
of empty destination.

At a football game we huddle
under his umbrella
talking about the obvious.
He brings me coffee
to hold warm between my hands,
a gift of no occasion.

When we rise for the anthem
I hear the rusty crack of his voice
for the first time maybe ever.

Thirty-three years of coughing
thick factory air, of drifting to sleep
through the heavy ring of machinery,
of twelve-hour days. In my sleep
I felt the cold bump of his late-night kiss.

I shiver in the rain
as my father sings me
what now I hear as
a children's song. I lean into him,
the umbrella and rain my excuse,
my shoulder against his,
and I imagine my mother
falling in love.

"Anthem" by Jim Daniels from M-80. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is All Saints' Day, and Pope Julius II chose this day in 1512 to display Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. It took Michelangelo four years to complete the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel. The paintings are of scenes from the Old Testament, including the famous center section, "The Creation of Adam." The chapel itself was built about 25 years earlier, and various Renaissance painters were commissioned to paint frescos on the walls.

Michelangelo was 33 years old at the time, and he tried to point out to the pope that he was a sculptor, and not really a painter, but the pope wouldn't listen. Michelangelo used his skills as a sculptor to make the two-dimensional ceiling look like a series of three-dimensional scenes — a technique that was relatively new at the time. It took him four years to finish the job, between 1508 and 1512. He worked from a scaffold 60 feet above the floor, and he covered about 10,000 square feet of surface. Every day, fresh plaster was laid over a part of the ceiling and Michelangelo had to finish painting before the plaster dried.

The German writer Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "We cannot know what a human being can achieve until we have seen [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). As a young man, he considered becoming a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team. At the time, baseball catchers wore almost no protective gear, and the catcher's mitt was basically a gardening glove with a little extra padding. Stephen Crane became famous within his prep school league for being able to catch anything, even barehanded. One of his teammates said, "He played baseball with fiendish glee."

Crane had started cutting classes to spend all his time in New York City, and he was fascinated by what he found there. He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager. His first novel was Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). Booksellers wouldn't stock it, so he gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest. He said, "I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment."

Then, after reading a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers, Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself. The result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment, hoping to experience the glory of battle that he's read about in school.

The Red Badge of Courage made him famous. It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a twenty-four year old who'd never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane; they'd fought beside him in various Civil War battles. When the writer Hamlin Garland asked him how he'd conveyed the battlefield scenes so vividly, Stephen Crane said he'd just drawn on his own experience as an athlete.

Crane spent the rest of his life working as a war correspondent. On New Year's Eve in 1896, he was on a boat to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War when the boat hit a sandbar and sank. He barely survived in a small dingy with three other men and spent 30 hours at sea, eventually jumping ship and swimming to shore. The event damaged his health and contributed to his death of TB a few years later at the age of twenty-eight, but it also inspired his short story "The Open Boat" (1898).

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