Jun. 14, 2006
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Poem: "Off the Record" by Ronald Wallace from Long for This World: New and Selected Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Off the Record
In the attic I find the notes
he kept in college
over forty years ago: Hooray
for Thanksgiving vacation! he wrote
in the margin of Psych 102.
And for a moment I can see him there,
feel the exuberance surge through
that odd cell of his body
where I am still
a secret code uncompleted, a piece
of DNA, some ancient star-stuff.
And then I find a recording of me
from 1948, when he was twenty-two
and I was three, and I can see,
from my perch up on his shoulders,
him stopping at the gaudy arcade,
plugging his lucky quarter into
the future where we'd always be.
Maybe imagination is just
a form of memory after all, locked
deep in the double helix of eternity.
Or maybe the past is but one more
phantasmagoric invention we use
to fool ourselves into someone else's shoes.
It is not my voice I want to hear
on memory's fading page, on imagination's disk.
It is my father's in the background
prompting me, doing his best
to stay off the record, his hushed
instructions vanishing in static.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the illustrator for Charles Dickens, Hablot Knight Browne, (books by this author) better known as "Phiz," born in Lambeth, near London (1815). He went on to work with Dickens for over twenty years, illustrating ten of Dickens's novels, including David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1853), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Most people read Dickens today without the aid of illustration, but when his work first began to appear in 1836, the illustrations were an integral part of the story.
The critic G.K. Chesterton wrote of Hablot Knight Browne, "No other illustrator ever created the true Dickens character with the precise and correct quantum of exaggeration. No other illustrator ever breathed the true Dickens atmosphere in which clerks are clerks and yet at the same time elves."
It's the birthday of Saul Steinberg, (books by this author) born in a small village near Bucharest, Romania (1914). His mother was a cake decorator, and Steinberg said her cakes were too beautiful to eat. His father specialized in designer cardboard boxes, and Steinberg spent his childhood rummaging through the embossed paper, rubber stamps, colored cardboard, and blocks of type. He said, "I got high on elementary things, like the luminosity of the day and the smell of everythingmud, earth, humidity, the delicious smells of cellars and mould, grocers' shops."
After graduating from high school in Bucharest, he moved to Milan, Italy, to study architecture. He received an architecture degree, but he said, "I realized I couldn't be an architect because of the horror of dealing with people."
He sailed for America from Portugal, but unfortunately he carried a "slightly fake" passport, which he had doctored with his own rubber stamp. When he arrived at Ellis Island, he was deported on a cargo ship to Santo Domingo. The editor of The New Yorker magazine intervened, and Steinberg was finally allowed to enter the United States through Miami in 1942. He took a bus to New York City, and for the rest of his life he always loved traveling by bus. He said, "From a bus one has a much better and nobler view, as from horseback."
He was a longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker, and he painted many covers for the magazine, including his most famous, "View of the World from 9th Avenue" (1975), which shows a New Yorker's view of the city, huge in the foreground, and the rest of the United States so small and formless that it barely exists.
Steinberg parodied most of the popular styles of painting of the twentieth century, including cubism, pointillism, abstract expressionism, and even children's art. But instead of being difficult, like most modern art, his work was always playful and funny. He filled his pictures with American icons that he found fascinating: Easter bunnies, Lady Liberty, the Chrysler Building, cheerleaders.
He always hated having his photograph taken for magazine articles, so for photo shoots, he started wearing masks over his face with a drawing of his face where his real face should have been. He loved making elaborate counterfeit documents, currency, passports, licenses, and especially diplomas. He would bestow his diplomas on various friends and loved ones each year. His wife hung her diploma over the kitchen sink.
It's the birthday of science writer Dava Sobel, (books by this author), born in New York City (1947). Her big breakthrough came in 1995, when she published Longitude, which tells how the eighteenth-century scientist and clockmaker John Harrison solved the problem of determining east-west location at sea. Longitude became a surprise best-seller in America and England. Sobel's book Galileo's Daughter, about the correspondence between the great Italian astronomer and his favorite daughter, came out in 1999.
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