Feb. 28, 2007


by Suzanne Cleary

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Poem: "Echocardiogram" by Suzanne Cleary, from Trick Pear. © Carnegie Mellon University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


How does, how does, how does it work
so, little valve stretching messily open, as wide as possible,
all directions at once, sucking air, sucking blood, sucking
how? On the screen I see the part of me that always
                                                                 loves my life, never tires
of what it takes, this in-and-out, this open-and-shut
                                                                 in the dark chest of me,
tireless, without muscle or bone, all flex and flux and blind
will, little mouth widening, opening and opening and,
                                                                         then snapping
shut, shuddering anemone entirely of darkness, sea creature
of the spangled and sparkling sea, down, down where light
                                                                             cannot reach.
When the technician stoops, flips a switch, the most
                                                               unpopular kid in the class
stands offstage with a metal sheet, shaking it while Lear raves. So
this is the house where love lives, a tin shed in a windstorm, tin
shed at the sea's edge, the land's edge,
waters wild and steady, wild and steady, wild.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne, (books by this author) born in Périgueux, France (1533). His father was a wealthy landowner. Montaigne went off to college and became a lawyer, but his father died when Montaigne was 38 years old. And so he retired to the family estate and took over managing the property. And it was there that he began to write. He wrote short pieces on various topics, and he called them "essays," because the French word "essai" means attempt.

He lived at a time when religious civil wars were breaking out all over the country — Protestants and Catholics killing each other. The Black Plague was ravaging the peasants in his neighborhood; he once saw men digging their own graves and then lying down to die in them. Still, while he occasionally wrote about big subjects like hatred and death, he also wrote about the most ordinary things, like his gardening or the way radishes affected his digestion. He wrote about sadness, idleness, liars, fear, smell, prayer, cannibals, and thumbs, among other things.

Michel de Montaigne wrote, "The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness."

It was on this day in 1854 that about 50 opponents of slavery gathered in Ripon, Wisconsin, to found the Republican Party. The group was made up of Northern Democrats, Whigs, and a small antislavery party called the Free Soil Party. And they were remarkably successful for a brand-new party. In 1856, after just two years in existence, they elected 92 representatives and 20 senators, and they came close to capturing the presidency with their candidate John C. Freemont. And just four years after that, they did win the presidency with their candidate Abraham Lincoln. No new political party since then has won the presidency of the United Sates.

It was on this day in 1953 that James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. They made the discovery with the help of some X-ray photographs taken by a woman named Rosalind Franklin. They would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Rosalind Franklin would have been awarded the Nobel Prize as well, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.

And it's the birthday of the man who almost beat Watson and Crick to the discovery of DNA, the chemist Linus Pauling, born in Oswego, Oregon (1901). He studied chemistry at Oregon Agricultural College, and then won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used to go abroad to study the new field of quantum mechanics with some of the most important physicists of the era.

Pauling returned to the United States and took a chemistry job at Caltech. He later said of that time, "I was the only person in the world who had a good understanding of quantum mechanics and an extensive knowledge about chemistry." Using his new knowledge, Pauling became the first chemist to examine individual molecules with X-rays, and he showed how the various properties of a chemical — its color and texture and hardness — are a result of its molecular structure. He won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1954.

Linus Pauling said, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."

It's the birthday of the poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, (books by this author) born in New York City (1913). Her first book of poems, Ants on the Melon, came out in 1996, when she was 83 years old.

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Ben Hecht, (books by this author) born in New York City (1893). He's best known for the play he wrote with a newspaper reporter named Charles MacArthur called The Front Page (1928). It was a big success on Broadway, and it was later made into the movie His Girl Friday (1940).

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