Apr. 21, 2001


by Philip Booth

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Poem: "Civilities," by Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999 (Viking).


Kids in the city, where
there are only dogs, all
the time yelling it.
The same as country kids
yell, trying to be
tough; or women, proving
they have the same right
as men. Rich men pretending
they farm. None of them
within range of my grandmother,
whose proud Victorian bowels
never grumbled, who knew
right words, and which
to use when.
            When Mr. Bowden
brought to her garden
cartloads of spring dressing,
it was presented, and
billed, as such. In her
presence, horse manure
was not a phrase he'd think
to use. Not that he didn't,
being from in The County,
know deer droppings from
moosecat, or bearscat
from fox-sign.
            Fifty years gone,
this tilt backyard is still weighed
by their presence: Mr. Bowden
and Mrs. Hooke, bald pate
and ample bosom, their joined
civilities out inspecting
the edged border of her
perennial garden — the same
garden I'm just about to
turn over for turnips, beets,
and squash, being myself,
in the quick of spring,
already up to my boottops
in the back of the pickup,
forking out to my wife
lovely dark clods of cowdung.

It's the birthday of comedy writer Elaine May, born Elaine Berlin in Philadelphia (1932).

It is the birthday of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, born in London (1926), the first child of the Duke and Duchess of York.

On this day in 1910, Mark Twain died in Redding, Connecticut. He'd been born in 1835 with the appearance of Haley's Comet, and, just as he predicted, he went out of this world when the comet came back.

It is the birthday of naturalist John Muir, born in Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland (1838). His family emigrated to America when he was 11, settling in Wisconsin. As a teenager, working long hours on the family farm, he had no time for school and little opportunity for formal study, but he very much wanted to learn. He took to rising at one o'clock in the morning so he could have five hours all to himself to read and write. As a young man, he moved west, and he was largely responsible for the founding of the Sierra Club, and the Sequoia and Yosemite national parks in California.

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness."

It's the birthday of humorist Josh Billings, born Henry Wheeler Shaw, in Lanesboro, Massachusetts (1818). He was a popular humorist around the time of the civil war, and president Abraham Lincoln was a fan of his work.

"As scarce as the truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand."

It's the birthday of novelist Charlotte Brontë, born in Thornton, Yorkshire, England (1816). Her father was an eccentric Anglican minister; her mother died when she was five. There were four Brontë children: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and their brother Bramwell. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847; the following year, her brother Branwell died in September, then Emily in December, and Anne the following May. Charlotte died six years later, at 39, of tuberculosis.

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