Dec. 3, 2001

An Offering for Mr. Bluehart

by James Wright

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Poem: "An Offering for Mr. Bluehart," by James Wright from Above the River: Complete Poems (Noonday Press).

An Offering for Mr. Bluehart

That was a place, when I was young,
Where two or three good friends and I
Tested the fruit against the tongue
Or threw the withered windfalls by.
The sparrows, angry in the sky,
Denounced us from a broken bough.
They limp along the wind and die.
The apples are all eaten now.

Behind the orchard, past one hill
The lean satanic owner lay
And threatened us with murder till
We stole his riches all away.
He caught us in the act one day
And damned us to the laughing bone,
And fired his gun across the gray
Autumn where now his life is done.

Sorry for him, or any man
Who lost his labored wealth to thieves,
Today I mourn him, as I can,
By leaving in their golden leaves
Some luscious apples overhead.
Now may my abstinence restore
Peace to the orchard and the dead.
We shall not nag them any more.

It's the birthday of filmmaker and critic Jean-Luc Godard, born in Paris, France (1930). Godard, who once said, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl," was one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century, and introduced many techniques that have since become standard fare: jump cuts, hand-held camera work, unusual camera angles, and improvised dialogue. Asked by a fellow filmmaker if he would at least admit that a film should have a beginning, middle, and end, Godard replied, "Yes, but not necessarily in that order." In 1959, he produced his first feature film, based on an idea by Francois Truffaut. The film, Breathless, made Jean-Paul Belmondo a star, and won Godard international acclaim. It was to be his only commercial success. Throughout the 1960s, his films, including The Little Soldier (1965), Masculine-Feminine (1966), and Weekend (1967), gradually evolved into complex political statements. He left Paris for Switzerland, which has been his home for the last 20 years. Although he has continued to make films, he has also lived a reclusive life. In a rare interview, he told a reporter that he had clipped a cartoon that exemplified his situation. It shows a unicorn in a suit sitting at a desk, talking on the phone. The caption reads, "These rumors of my non-existence are making it very difficult for me to obtain financing." Godard's influence can be seen in the work of many other directors, including Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, and Quentin Tarantino. Godard's latest film, In Praise of Love, received its premiere at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

It's the birthday of psychoanalyst and author Anna Freud, born in Vienna, Austria (1895). The youngest of six children born to Sigmund Freud, she became eminent in her own right for her theories on child psychoanalysis. She was an intensely private person, and little is known about her own childhood, except that, in an unusual and unorthodox procedure, she was psychoanalyzed by her own father. In her later years, Freud became interested in children's legal rights, and she applied her concepts of child psychoanalysis to such areas as child custody, foster care, and adoption.

It's the birthday of novelist Joseph Conrad, born in the Polish Ukraine, between Poland and Russia (1857). He was an orphan by the time he was 11, and was raised by a caring—and wealthy—uncle. He yearned for the life of a seafarer, and at the age of 16, moved to France, where he began working on sailing ships as an apprentice and steward. In 1878, he left for England, and shipped out on a British steamer. He became a naturalized British citizen and a captain in the British Merchant Marines. In 1890, he sailed to the Congo, a trip that was the inspiration for one of his most famous novels. Despite his world travels, Conrad was bored and not particularly successful in the merchant marines. So, although his native language was Polish, and he had spoken French for many years, he began a career as an English novelist. His first book, Almayer's Folly, set in the Dutch East Indies, was published in 1894. The book featured lush tropical jungles and exotic native cultures set against the moral ambiguities of colonialism. These themes were continued in one of Conrad's most famous novels, Heart of Darkness (1899), based on his earlier travels to the Congo. It is narrated by a seaman named Marlow, who searches the Congo for an ivory dealer named Kurtz. Although Marlow initially believes Kurtz to be a civilizing influence in Africa, he eventually finds him to be exploitative and corrupt. On a symbolic level, the novel is a voyage into the heart of darkness within each one of us. Conrad's second great novel, Lord Jim, was published in 1900. Marlow again narrates the story of a young sailor who abandons his passengers on what he thinks is a sinking ship, then later redeems himself on a Malaysian island. He continued to write, although distracted by ill health and money worries, for another 20 years.

It's the birthday of portrait painter Gilbert Charles Stuart, born in North Kingston, Rhode Island (1755). In 1775, he went to London to study with the painter Benjamin West. He had his first exhibit in 1777, and was a successful portrait painter in England and Ireland for many years. In 1793 he returned to the United States to establish his American reputation. He did so in 1795, when he painted a portrait of George Washington. Although he was not satisfied with the work, Martha Washington liked it so much, she commissioned a second portrait. This became known as the "Atheneum" portrait, and Stuart painted over 100 copies of it. He painted more than one thousand portraits during his lifetime, including those of Martha Washington; Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; and of the British Kings George III and George IV.

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