Dec. 5, 2001

Letter to the Front

by Muriel Rukeyser

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Poem: "Letter to the Front," by Muriel Rukeyser from Muriel Rukeyser: The Collected Poems (McGraw-Hill).

Letter to the Front

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift.     If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life.    Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment.     Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also.     But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

It's the birthday of journalist, critic, and novelist Calvin Trillin, born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935). Trillin began his writing career as a journalist for Time magazine, where he was a "floater," moving from one department to the next, an experience that was the inspiration for his 1980 novel, Floater. And although he has written several other novels, including his latest, Tepper Isn't Going Out, Trillin is best known as a writer of non-fiction. Trillin often writes about food. Three books, American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater (1974), Alice, Let's Eat (1978), and Third Helpings (1983), celebrate the variety of American cuisine, like hamburgers, fried chicken, and Chicago-style pizza. One of Trillin's most popular books was his 1996 Messages from My Father: A Memoir. Trillin, who once said: "Writing about your family is tricky business. I think the rule of thumb is very easy on that: If you have any reason to believe that you are Dostoyevsky, it's OK. But if you don't have any reason to believe that you are Dostoyevsky, it isn't OK."

It's the birthday of novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Joan Didion, born in Sacramento, California (1934). Her novels include Play It As It Lays (1970), her non-fiction includes Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), and her screenplays include Panic in Needle Park (1971), A Star is Born (1977), True Confessions (1982), and Up Close and Personal (1995).

It's the birthday of editor, author, and fisherman Arnold Gingrich, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1903). He began his career as an advertising copywriter, and then moved on to become editor of Apparel Arts magazine in 1931. Two years later, he founded Esquire magazine, which came out in 1933.

It's the birthday of screenwriter, producer, and director Nunnally Johnson, born in Columbus, Georgia (1897). He moved to New York in 1919, where he worked for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the New York Evening Post, and the New York Herald Tribune. He also wrote short stories, one of which, Rough House Rosie, was adapted to the silent screen in 1927. That gave him the idea to move to Hollywood, which he did in 1932. He stayed for more than 40 years, and wrote, directed, and/or produced over 100 films. His screenplays include The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), The Desert Fox (1951), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). In addition, he both wrote and directed How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), and The Three Faces of Eve (1957).

It's the birthday of screenwriter and director Fritz Lang, born in Vienna, Austria (1890). His 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, is a story of a futuristic slave society.

It's the birthday of poet Christina Rossetti, born in London, England (1830). She spent much of her childhood in the country, exposed to nature and the wilderness, themes that are recurrent in her poetry even though she spent most of her adult life in the city of London. Rossetti led a very retiring life and was often ill, diagnosed vaguely with tuberculosis or angina or some psychosomatic hysteria.

In 1955 on this day, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in Alabama. At that time, buses were segregated; the front of the bus was for whites and the back was for blacks. Blacks were required to give up their seats if the bus was crowded. On December 1, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Minutes later, she was arrested and sent to jail. The following day, Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent blacks declared a boycott of the bus system. It began December 5 and lasted more than a year. In the end, the segregation laws were declared unconstitutional.

In 1872 on this day, the ship the Mary Celeste was found abandoned off the Portuguese coast. The ship left New York on November 7 with Captain Benjamin Briggs, his wife Sarah, their daughter Sophia, and a crew of seven. On December 5, the ship Dei Gratia came upon the Mary Celeste halfway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. There was no one on board. The captain, his family, and crew were never seen again. Their mysterious disappearance was never solved.

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