Oct. 31, 2006
Motown, arsenal of democracy
Poem: "Motown, arsenal of democracy" by Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.
Motown, arsenal of democracy
Fog used to bloom off the distant river
turning our streets strange, elongating
sounds and muffling others. The crack
of a gunshot softened.
The sky at night was a dull red:
a bonfire built of old creosote soaked
logs by the railroad tracks. A red
almost pink painted by factories
that never stopped their roar
like traffic in canyons of New York.
But stop they did and fell down
ending dangerous jobs that paid.
We believed in our unions like some
trust in their priests. We believed
in Friday paychecks sure as
winter's ice curb-to-curb
where older boys could play
pucks, sticks cracking wood
on wood. A man came home
with a new car and other men
would collect around it like ants
in sugar. Women clumped for showers
wedding and babywakes, funerals
care for the man brought home
with a hole ripped in him, children
coughing. We all coughed in Detroit.
We woke at dawn to my father's hack.
That world is gone as a tableau
of wagon trains. Expressways carved
neighborhoods to shreds. Rich men
moved jobs south, then overseas.
Only the old anger lives there
bubbling up like chemicals dumped
seething now into the water
building now into the bones.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Halloween, one of the oldest holidays in the Western European tradition.
Today, 70 percent of American households will open their doors and offer candy to strangers, most of them children, 50 percent of Americans will take photographs of family or friends in costume, and the nation as a whole will spend more than 6 billion dollars.
For the Celtic people of northeastern Europe, November 1st was New Year's Day and October 31 was the last night of the year. Celts believed it was the night that spirits, ghosts, faeries, and goblins freely walked the earth. It was Pope Gregory III in the eighth century A.D. who tried to turn Halloween into a Christian holiday. Christians had been celebrating All Saints Day on May 13. Pope Gregory III decided to move the holiday to November 1st, to divert Northern Europeans from celebrating an old pagan ritual. Instead of providing food and drink to the spirits, Christians were encouraged to provide food and drink to the poor. And instead of dressing up like animals and ghosts, Christians were encouraged to dress up like their favorite saints.
In the United States, Puritans tried to outlaw Halloween, in part because of its association with Catholicism. So it was the Irish Catholics who brought Halloween to this country, when they immigrated here in great numbers after the potato famine in the 1840s. By the late 1800s, Victorian women's magazines began to offer suggestions for celebrating Halloween in wholesome ways, with barn dancing and apple bobbing. And by the early 20th century, it became a holiday for children more than adults. In 1920, The Ladies' Home Journal made the first known reference to children going door to door for candy, and by the 1950s it was a universal practice in this country. By the end of the 20th century, 92 percent of America's children were trick-or-treating.
Halloween no longer has any real connection to the festival it came from. Unlike most major holidays in this country, it is not a religious holiday, it does not celebrate an event in our nation's past, it does not involve traveling to visit family, it doesn't even give us a day off work. But it gives us the chance to try out other identities. For one day, people can feel free to dress as the opposite gender, as criminals, as superheroes, celebrities, animals, or even inanimate objects.
It's the birthday of the poet John Keats, (books by this author) born in London (1795). It was after his parents' deaths, when he was just a boy, that Keats became obsessed with literature. The book that changed Keats's life was Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. His friend Charles Brown later said, "It was the Fairy Queen [sic] that awakened his genius. In Spenser's fairy land he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being." That same year (1814), Keats wrote his first poem, called "In Imitation of Spenser."
But he didn't begin writing his greatest poetry until he fell in love with an 18- year-old girl named Fanny Brawne. It was in the six months after he met her that he wrote most of his famous poems, including "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale."
That summer, he was already suffering the early signs of the tuberculosis he had probably caught from his brother. He moved to Italy in hopes of improving his health, but he only got worse. In one of his last letters to Fanny Brawne, Keats wrote, "I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered." He was just 25 years old when he died, and he had published only 54 poems in his lifetime.
John Keats wrote, "Nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rightsor if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel."
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