Nov. 11, 2005
17, excerpt of Fall
Poem: "17," excerpt of "Fall" by H.L. Hix from Shadows of Houses© Etruscan Press. Reprinted with permission
17, excerpt of Fall
A hedgeapple falling, the neighbor's radio,
a rusty squeaking roof vent, someone yelling You boys
stop that, cicadas, cars on the highway, sparrows
rustling in gutters, all these competing noises.
A swingset's rusty voice severed by a chainsaw,
one life nourished by the erotic, one poisoned.
Though latched shut and locked, the truck's draw-down trailer door
each time it takes a bump clatters and tries to rise.
Two screens between us gray the neighbor's white lace curtains,
but the sun makes pumpkin-colored soy fields brighter
now than our maple will be. Though it clings to green,
gold has found at branch's end one eight-leaf cluster.
The horizon approaches, those rising mountains,
and everything else grows narrow and more clear.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served in the armed forces.
November 11 was originally called Armistice Day because it was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. The armistice was signed at 11:00 AM, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year. After four years of brutal trench fighting, nine million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded. It was called "The War to End All Wars," because it was the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and it made many people so sick of war that they hoped no war would ever break out again.
Many intellectuals and artists were disillusioned by the war. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country's pride."
It's the birthday of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, born in Moscow (1821). He had just graduated from engineering school with no real prospects when he wrote his first novel, Poor Folk (1846), about a young clerk who's so poor that he lives in the corner of a dirty kitchen, spends all his time pouring his heart out in letters to the girl he loves, even though she eventually marries someone else. When he finished the novel, he gave it to some friends, and they stayed up all night reading it. At 4:00 in the morning, they pounded on Dostoyevsky's door to wake him up and tell him that he'd written a masterpiece. He later said that was the happiest moment of his life.
Poor Folk was a best-seller when it came out in 1846, and then Dostoyevsky got involved in politics. He joined a group of utopian socialists, and in 1849, the Russian government arrested him along with a group of other writers for planning to distribute political pamphlets advocating socialism and the emancipation of the serfs. They were told they'd been sentenced to death, they were led out to the firing squad, blindfolded and bound to stakes.
Dostoyevsky later wrote to his brother, "Being the third in the row, I concluded I had only a few minutes of life before me. I thought of you and your dear ones and I contrived to kiss [my friends] who were next to me, and to bid them farewell. Suddenly the troops beat a tattoo, we were unbound, brought back upon the scaffold, and informed that his Majesty had spared our lives." Two of Dostoevsky's friends never recovered their sanity.
Dostoyevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison and went on to write many novels, including Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He's the author of many novels, including Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990) and, most recently, Timequake (1997).
His father forced him to go to college to study biochemistry, though he wanted to be a journalist. Vonnegut said, "[College] was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for." He was failing almost all of his classes when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he jumped at the chance to join the army and get out of school.
In December of 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, and forced to work in a factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. On the night of February 13, 1945, British and American bombers attacked Dresden, igniting a firestorm that burned up the oxygen in the city and killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours.
It was more than twenty years later when he published Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who experiences the bombing of Dresden and loses his mind, believing he has traveled to an alien planet where time does not exist. Vonnegut said it was an anti-war book. But he also said, "Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers." He has since become one of the most popular guest lecturers at universities across the country.
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