May 17, 2005


by David Lehman

TUESDAY, 17 MAY, 2005
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Poem: "SF" by David Lehman from When a Man Loves a Woman © Scribner. Reprinted with permission.


SF stood for Sigmund Freud, or serious folly,
for science fiction in San Francisco, or fear
in the south of France. The system failed.
The siblings fought. So far, such fury,
as if a funereal sequence of sharps and flats
set free a flamboyant signature, sinful, fanatic,
the fire sermon of a secular fundamentalist,
a singular fellow's Symphonie Fantastique.

Students forget the state's favorite son's face.
Sorry, friends, for the screws of fate.
Stage fright seduces the faithful for the subway fare
as slobs fake sobs, suckers flee, salesmen fade.
Sad the fops. Sudden the flip side of fame.
So find the segue. Finish the speculative frame.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1954, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The high Court ruled that racial segregation in the public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The ruling reversed the Court's decision in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the principal of "separate but equal" public facilities for blacks and whites. The Brown decision said that separate educational facilities for blacks were by their very nature unequal.

It's the birthday of young adult novelist Gary Paulsen, born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1939). His father was a member of General Patton's staff during World War Two, and his mother worked in a munitions factory, so he was raised mostly by relatives. When he did have a chance to live with his parents, they were constantly on the move because of the demands of military life. He changed schools often, made few friends, and his grades began to slip. It was a trip to a public library, and the help of a friendly librarian, that turned him around. He went on to become a best-selling young adult novelist, and the winner of Newbery Honor Medals for Dogsong (1985), Hatchet (1987), and The Winter Room (1989). He says: "I tell kids to read like a wolf. Read when they tell you not to read; read what they tell you not to read. That gets me in trouble sometimes. A lot of people are upset by the Goosebumps series and all that stuff, but anything that gets kids to read is fine."

It's the birthday of two of the greatest operatic sopranos of the twentieth century: Zinka Milanov, born in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (1906) and Birgit Nilsson, born in West Karup, Sweden (1918). Milanov was known for her roles in Verdi operas, particularly Aida, which she sang with the Metropolitan Opera seventy-five times. Nilsson was known primarily as a Wagnerian soprano, but she was also brilliant in Verdi operas. In 1962, she and Milanov sang Tosca at the Met on back-to-back evenings, both paired with tenor Franco Corelli. After Nilsson's first performance as Aida at the Met, Zinka Milanov climbed into Nilsson's waiting limousine and said: "If Madame Nilsson takes my roles, I must take her Rolls!"

It's the birthday of Czech-born Israeli author Max Brod, born in Prague (1884). He remains best known today for his intimate friendship with Franz Kafka, whom he met when they were both students at the University of Prague. When Kafka died in 1924, Brod rescued his remaining unpublished manuscripts, which Kafka had wanted burned. The works which Brod edited and published-The Trial and The Castle-helped to cement Kafka's reputation. Brod, who emigrated to Palestine at the outbreak of World War Two, went on to write many plays and novels of his own. His best-known novel was translated into English as The Redemption of Tycho Brahe (1928). He also wrote a biography of Kafka.

It's the birthday of French composer Erik Satie, born in Honfleur, Calvados, France (1866). The tone for his eccentric career as a musician was set when he dropped out of the Paris Conservatoire to become a café pianist. As a composer, he became known for small piano pieces with titles like Trois morceaux en forme de poire ("Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear") and Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois ("Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Wooden Fellow").

It's the birthday of English surgeon Edward Jenner, born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, England (1749). He's remembered today as the discoverer of the vaccination for smallpox.

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