Friday

Jan. 17, 2003

Byzantine Faces

by Robert Lax

FRIDAY, 17 JANUARY 2003
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Poem: "Byzantine Faces," by Robert Lax from A Thing That Is (The Overlook Press).

Byzantine Faces

i won't believe
i'm really
alive

until i'm gladder
to be alive
here now
than to have
been alive
there then

living in greece
i may be
thinking
i am, was,
alive there
then

some byzantine
time
some classical
time

why think
that good?

i should
know better

i think good
any time except
the eighteenth
century

(not too bad)

the nineteenth
century

(bad enough)

or the twentieth

really, i'm
glad to be
alive in the
twentieth

not only glad
to be just
alive

but even to
be alive
just now
right now

yes, but i keep
remembering
a light in the
eyes of certain
figures in
frescoes

certain figures
in mosaics

that made
me wish
i was living
then

as though
living then
were to
live

forever

some life
some liveliness
in the eye
that seemed
eternal

eternally
alive
eternally
infinitely
joyous
& penetrating

(warm with
the warmth
of life
exploding,
even, with,
the joy
of life)

yet there
forever

is it
that see
ing them
in some
mu
se
um

seeing
them still
preserved
still
living

made me
envy
their
state

?

not
sure

am
not
sure,
either,
that it
was envy
they gave
me, but
rather a
life

a spark
of living
to keep
alive

It's the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, born in Boston (1706). Books were hard to come by when he was a young apprentice in his brother's printing shop, but he got hold of an odd volume of Addison and Steele's The Spectator and used it to teach himself how to write. He took notes on each of the pieces, then hid the book and tried to reconstruct the essays from the notes alone. He toyed with the idea of becoming a poet, but his father assured him that "verse-makers were generally beggars," and he turned his attention to the cultivation of virtue and the aid of humanity. He became better known than any of the leaders of the Revolution except George Washington; he signed every document associated with the founding of the Republic, and took Paris by storm when he appeared at court to secure an alliance with France. He invented bifocals and the glass harmonica, charted the Gulf Stream on his way across the Atlantic, and chased tornadoes on horseback. He was flirtatious on up into his seventies. In 1731, Franklin founded America's first circulating library so that people could borrow books to read even though they might not have been able to afford to buy them. He was the author, printer, and publisher of Poor Richard's Almanac, an annually published book of useful encouragement, advice, and factual information, beginning in 1732. It contains maxims such as "Early to bed and early to rise, Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" and "In this world nothing can said to be certain except death and taxes.

It's the birthday of Charles Brockden Brown, born in Philadelphia (1771). He was the first man in the United States to try and make a living writing novels. His masterpiece was Wieland (1798), a gothic horror novel whose plot turned on "spontaneous combustion, demonic ventriloquism, murder and madness."

It's the birthday of Anne Brontë, born in Yorkshire (1820). She was the youngest of the Brontë sisters. Her first novel was Agnes Grey (1847). She died at the age of twenty-nine.

It's the birthday of the novelist Ronald Firbank, born in London (1886).

It's the birthday of Nevil Shute, born in Middlesex, England (1899), who wrote A Town Like Alice (1950) and a famous book about the end of the world, On the Beach (1957).


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