Mar. 10, 2007


by Margaret Atwood

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Poem: "February" by Margaret Atwood, from Morning in the Burned House. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It's his
way of telling whether or not I'm dead.
If I'm not, he wants to be scratched; if I am
He'll think of something. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas,
purring like a washboard. Some other tomcat,
not yet a capon, has been spraying our front door,
declaring war. It's all about sex and territory,
which are what will finish us off
in the long run. Some cat owners around here
should snip a few testicles. If we wise
hominids were sensible, we'd do that too,
or eat our young, like sharks.
But it's love that does us in. Over and over
Again, He shoots, he scores! and famine
crouches in the bedsheets, ambushing the pulsing
eiderdown, and the windchill factor hits
thirty below, and the pollution pours
out of our chimneys to keep us warm.
February, month of despair,
with a skewered heart in the centre.
I think dire thoughts, and lust for French fries
with a splash of vinegar.
Cat, enough of your greedy whining
and your small pink bumhole.
Off my face! You're the life principle,
more or less, so get going
on a little optimism around here.
Get rid of death. Celebrate increase. Make it be spring.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa (1903). He played with the Wolverines in the 1920s and then joined Frank Trumbauer's band, recording classics such as "I'm Coming, Virginia" and "Singin' the Blues."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. (Henry Watson) Fowler, born in Tonbridge, Kent, England (1858). He lived on the island of Guernsey, in the English Channel, and tried to make a living as an essayist, but that didn't work out. So he decided to write a book about how not to write. The result was his first big success, The King's English (1906). His Dictionary of Modern English Usage came out 20 years later, in 1926, and became an instant classic. T. S. Eliot said, "Every person who wishes to write ought to read A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ... for a quarter of an hour every night before going to bed."

Though his books eventually made him a very rich man, H.W. Fowler remained fixed in his habits. He went for a swim every day until he was 74, no matter how cold the English Channel was. When he got home from his swim, he always had a boiled egg for breakfast, and then he would take all the eggs out of the carton and turn them over so that the yokes wouldn't spoil. He once said, "I have a pedantically tidy soul."

It was on this day in 1785 that Thomas Jefferson was appointed the American ambassador to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. He had learned French from books, so he had some difficulty communicating when he first arrived. But by the time he got to Paris, he had fallen in love with the city. In a letter to Abigail Adams, he wrote, "Here we have singing, dancing, laugh, and merriment. ... When our king goes out, they fall down and kiss the earth where he has trodden; and then they go on kissing one another. They have as much happiness in one year as an Englishman in ten."

It was on this day in 1864 that Ulysses S. Grant was named lieutenant general of the Union armies during the Civil War. Two days later, Grant was promoted again, to General in Chief of the Armies of the United States, and he was given complete control over the Union war effort. He promoted General William T. Sherman to his old job, commander of the Federal armies in the Western Theater. Grant then commanded Sherman to march against the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and to continue forward until he reached Atlanta, burning everything in his path. At the same time, Grant reorganized the Army of the Potomac until it was a potent fighting force, and then he sent it into battle against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. Both forces were to move forward until they met each other, pinching the Confederate forces, and then they would join together to form a massive fighting force, poised to destroy the Confederacy, which is exactly what would happen the following year.

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