Jan. 15, 2004
Poem: "White Dream," "The Last Year" and "My Cup," by Robert Friend, from Dancing With A Tiger: Poems 1941-1998 (Spuyten Duyvil).
After receiving the relentless news
and experiencing the terrible invasion,
I was strangely unafraid, and even glad
as I sank into each day as into a soft pillow
and wafted like a child into healing sleep.
Perhaps it was simply resignation.
I knew it as unconditional peace.
Pain, I knew, would come later.
I turned over on my pillow
and sank into another
This is the last year.
There will be no other,
but heartless nature
Never has a winter sun
spilled so much light,
never have so many flowers
dared such early bloom.
The air is brilliant, sharp.
Never have I taken
such long, long breaths. My Cup
They tell me I am going to die.
Why don't I seem to care?
My cup is full. Let it spill.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of writer Frank Conroy, born in New York City (1936). He's the author of the memoir Stop-time (1967) and the novel Body and Soul (1993). He's the director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where he once scolded a student for using a lot of detail that didn't matter to her short story. "The author makes a tacit deal with the reader," he said. "You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it—to remember, to keep in mind—as they make their way up the hill. . . . If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain—to the end of the story—and they find that this Volkswagen has nothing whatsoever to do with your story, you're going to have a very irritated reader on your hands."
It's the birthday of novelist Ernest J. Gaines, born in Oscar, Louisiana (1933). He wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), ostensibly the recollections of a hundred-and-ten-year-old freed slave as revealed during a series of interviews. It was praised for its uncannily authentic voice, and Gaines said that after the novel was published, writers besieged him for advice about how to interview elderly people, and how to get them to talk openly about their memories. He had to tell them that he had made the whole thing up, and had no idea how to do interviews.
It's the birthday of civil rights leader, minister, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia (1929). He didn't set out to become a civil rights activist, but he was chosen to lead a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama when he was only 26. He said later that if he'd known what the job would entail, he might have turned it down. He wasn't even sure he wanted to become a preacher; as a teenager, the way people shouted and stomped in his Baptist church sometimes embarrassed him. But during the boycott, after he was assaulted and arrested and his house was bombed, he experienced what amounted to a religious conversion. He said later that he realized that the movement had far greater force than his own doubts, and that he had to act like a charismatic leader even if he didn't feel like one. He said, "As people began to derive inspiration from their involvement, I realized that the choice leaves your own hands. The people expect you to give them leadership."
It's the birthday of folklorist Alan Lomax, born in Austin, Texas (1915). He started working with his father when he was a teenager, recording traditional American folk songs sung by the people who had learned them at their grandparents' knees, long before radio or television. Together, he and his father archived 25,000 songs for the Library of Congress, and they brought Lead Belly, Son House, and Woody Guthrie to public attention.
It's the birthday of poet Osip Mandelstam, born in Warsaw (1891). He was raised in St Petersburg, and supported the Revolution until the Kremlin began to persecute artists and writers who refused to produce socialist realist propaganda. He wrote a brazenly hostile poem about Stalin that he read to a gathering of his friends. When a copy reached the dictator, he issued an order for Mandelstam to be "preserved and isolated." Mandelstam and his wife were exiled to the provinces. He was released for a short while, then re-arrested and sent to Siberia, where he died in prison. His wife saved his poems by memorizing them.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®