Apr. 20, 2001

Old Woodpecker

by Paul Zimmer

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Poem: "Old Woodpecker," by Paul Zimmer, from The Great Bird of Love (University of Illinois Press).

Old Woodpecker

In the end, his tiny eyes won't focus.
Punchy, his snap gone, he spends his
Time banging on gutters and drain pipes.
He begins to slurr and churrrr,
His breath descending in a rattle,
He tells endless stories of old trees
Taken, but he has absorbed one too many
Hardwoods to his noggin, his brain
Is pudding. For the rest of his time
He will undulate around, patronized,
Spunky but sweet, remembering only
Nests of teeming carpenter ants,
Consenting grubs under flaps of bark,
The days when he was a contender
Amongst the great woods of his life.

It is the birthday of surrealist painter and sculptor Joan Miró, born in Barçelona, Spain (1893). He's famous for his paintings The Farm, The Harlequin's Carnival (1924) and Dog Barking at the Moon (1926).

It is the birthday of silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd, born in Burchard, Nebraska (1893).

It's the birthday of Adolf Hitler, born in the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn (1889). His father wanted him to be a civil servant, but the boy wanted to become an artist. He dropped out of school, moved to Vienna, and worked a series of odd jobs—like shoveling snow and portering at the railway station. He lived in flophouses, ate in soup kitchens, and drew hundreds of pictures he sold on the street. He wore a long, shabby overcoat, and long, matted hair, and a beard. He moved to Munich at the beginning of World War One, and joined the Bavarian army, where he found his passion in the order and rules of the military. While in prison after the war, he wrote Mein Kampf (1925-26). He was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933.

It is the birthday of self-taught sculptor Daniel Chester French, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1850). When he was only 23, he was commissioned to make the statue of the minute man for the Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts. His most famous piece is the marble, seated figure of Abraham Lincoln, larger than life-size, which he created for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

On this day in 1770, Captain James Cook, on board his ship, the Endeavor, first laid eyes on the eastern coast of Australia. He saw a beach, with woods, and greenery, went ashore, and called the place New South Wales. A penal colony was established at Botany Bay, near the present site of Sydney, which began an influx of more than 160,000 English prisoners over the next fifty years.

It is the birthday of physician Philippe Pinel, born in Saint-André, France (1745), who changed the treatment of the mentally ill in the western world. He was appointed superintendent of an insane asylum at Bicetre, and was shocked by the horrible treatment of the patients there. He removed their chains, took them out of the dungeons, gave them medical care, and allowed them exercise. He published a paper on his philosophy of the treatment of the mentally ill in 1801, and other asylum directors followed his lead.

It's the birthday of Roman philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius, born in Rome (121 A.D.) He defended the empire against the Germans and the Britons, was always lenient with political criminals, and tried to improve living conditions for the poor. He did persecute the Christians, but he also gave us his "Meditations," and expressed with great beauty the Stoic philosophy.

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