Jan. 10, 2007

The Phone Call

by Philip Levine

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Poem: "The Phone Call" by Philip Levine, from A Walk With Thomas Jefferson. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.

The Phone Call

She calls Chicago, but no one
is home. The operator asks
for another number but still
no one answers. Together
they try twenty-one numbers,
and at each no one is ever home.
"Can I call Baltimore?" she asks.
She can, but she knows no one
in Baltimore, no one in
St Louis, Boston, Washington.
She imagines herself standing
before the glass wall high
over Lake Shore Drive, the cars
below fanning into the city.
East she can see all the way
to Gary and the great gray clouds
of exhaustion rolling over
the lake where her vision ends.
This is where her brother lives.
At such height there's nothing,
no birds, no growing, no noise.
She leans her sweating forehead
against the cold glass, shudders,
and puts down the receiver.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Philip Levine, (books by this author) born in Detroit (1928). After college, he tried getting a job in advertising, but he couldn't stand it, so he supported himself working in various auto factories around Detroit. Looking around at the other men in the factories, he realized that none of them had a voice. Nobody was speaking for them or writing for them. He said, "As young people will ... I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them, and that's what my life would be. And sure enough, I've gone and done it. Or I've tried anyway."

It's the birthday of the poet Robinson Jeffers, (books by this author) born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1887). He was still trying to figure out what to do for a living when he inherited enough money to support himself writing poetry, so he moved to the coast of California and built himself an observation tower so that he could observe the natural world and write about it.

He was living in his tower, without electricity or plumbing, publishing his books of poetry at his own expense, when an editor chose one of his poems for an anthology of California verse. Jeffers sent the editor his new collection Tamar and Other Poems (1924) as a thank-you gift, and the editor liked it so much that he sent it around to various magazines, where it got great reviews. Jeffers sent all the copies of the book he had to New York, and they immediately sold out.

Within a year, Jeffers was hailed as a genius, compared to Sophocles and Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Real estate agents started using his name to sell land in Carmel, California, where he lived.

But after his initial success, he began to write long narrative poems that no one could categorize. By the 1940s, Jeffers had sunk back into obscurity. He's been reassessed in the last two decades as possibly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. A new collection of his work, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, came out in 2001.

It's the birthday of historian Stephen E. Ambrose, (books by this author) born in Decatur, Illinois (1936). He was 28 years old when a small university press published his first book, Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff (1962), a biography of General Henry Halleck. Only a few thousand copies of the biography were printed, and Ambrose assumed that it had only been read by the academic community. But one day, he got a phone call from the former president, Dwight Eisenhower, who had read his book on Halleck and liked it so much that he wanted Ambrose to be his own biographer.

Ambrose wrote several books about Eisenhower, including The Supreme Commander (1970) and Eisenhower: The President (1984), and those books helped him make the leap from academic to popular historian. He went on to write many best-selling books about American history, including Band of Brothers (1992) and D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994).

Stephen Ambrose believed that he became a successful historian because he got so much practice telling stories to his students. He said, "There is nothing like standing before 50 students at 8 a.m. to start talking about an event that occurred 100 years ago, because the look on their faces is a challenge — 'Let's see you keep me awake.' You learn what works and what doesn't in a hurry."

It was on this day in 1776 that a 77-page pamphlet called "Common Sense" was published anonymously, making the case that the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain. It had been written by a man named Thomas Paine. The pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies, more copies than any other publication had ever sold at that time in America.

Adams would always be somewhat jealous of the attention "Common Sense" received, but even he had to admit that it was "Common Sense," more than anything else, that had persuaded most ordinary Americans to support independence. Adams said, "Without the pen of the author of 'Common Sense,' the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain."

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