Feb. 13, 2007

The Elm City

by Reed Whittemore

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Poem: "The Elm City" by Reed Whittemore, from The Feel of Rock. © Dryad Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Elm City

The hard, yellow, reversible, wicker seats
Sit in my mind's warm eye, varnished row on row,
In the old yellow childhood trolley
At the end of the line at Cliff Street, where the conductor
Swings the big wooden knob on the tall control box,
Clangs the dishpan bell, and we wander off

To tiptoe on stones and look up at bones in cases
In the cold old stone and bone of the Peabody Museum,
Where the dinosaur and the mastodon stare us down,
And the Esquimaux and the Indians stare us down

In New Haven,
The Elm City.

I left that town long ago for war and folly.
Phylogeny rolled to a stop at the old Peabody.
I still hear the dishpan bell of the yellow trolley.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1945 that Allied planes began the bombing of the German city of Dresden in World War II. At the beginning of the war, both Hitler and Churchill vowed that they would not attack civilian targets. But the German's broke their promise and used incendiary bombs on London, and Great Britain quickly followed suit. By 1943, the British had begun firebombing cities like Hamburg, creating firestorms that reached 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, with hurricane-force winds, which boiled all the water in the city and sucked all the oxygen out of the atmosphere, killing tens of thousands of people. The Allied military commanders argued that saturation bombing of German cities was the only way to force the Nazis to surrender.

One of the cities on the list for possible firebombing was Dresden, long considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and often called Florence on the Elbe. It had also become a sanctuary for refugees from all over Germany. Allied military commanders considered it an appropriate target because it was a source of optical equipment used in German submarines and fighter planes.

But still, Dresden might not have been bombed on this day if it hadn't been for the good weather. When cloud breaks were reported over the city, the British RAF went ahead with the attack and dropped 2,700 tons of bombs on Dresden, half of them incendiary. An area of almost 13 square miles was totally destroyed. No one knows exactly how many people died. Estimates have ranged from 35,000 to more than 135,000.

One of the survivors was an American GI named Kurt Vonnegut, who'd been a prisoner of war since the Battle of the Bulge. The night of the bombing, he and his fellow prisoners were locked in a slaughterhouse underground, and when they climbed up to the surface after the bombing was over they found the city had been reduced to ashes. The Germans forced Vonnegut and his fellow soldiers to collect the bodies, and they found that most of the people had died of asphyxiation.

Vonnegut spent 20 years trying to write about the experience. He finally had to give up on writing a true account of the event, and instead wrote the novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969), because he said, "You can't remember pure nonsense. It was pure nonsense ... the destruction of that city." The war in Europe ended just three months after the bombing of Dresden.

It's the birthday of novelist Margaret Halsey, born in Yonkers, New York (1910). She's best known for her best-selling book With Malice Towards Some (1938), where she makes fun of British manners.

It's the birthday of novelist Georges Simenon, (books by this author) born in Liége, Belgium (1903). He's one of the most prolific writers of all time, best known for his detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret. He wrote some 400 books, which sold more than 1.4 billion copies from 1935 to 1997. Each book took him on average eight days to write.

Georges Simenon said, "What you have not absorbed by the time you reach the age of 18 you will never absorb. It is finished."

It's the birthday of writer Ricardo Guiraldes, (books by this author) born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1886). He wrote poems, essays, and short stories, but he's best known for his novels about Argentinian cowboys, or gauchos, such as Rosaura (1922) and Shadows in the Pampas (1926).

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