Mar. 16, 2007

To Hold

by Jean Nordhaus

FRIDAY, 16 MARCH, 2007
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Poem: "To Hold" by Jean Nordhaus, from Innocence. © The Ohio State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To Hold

Before I left for camp, my mother sewed my name
with a firm stitch into everything I owned.
She even looped a string of nametapes
through the scissors I keep to this day on my desk.

She wanted to be sure, when she sent me into the woods,
she'd get the right child back at summer's end,
that I'd not be left in the laundry drum
like an unmarked sock. Others—

careless lazy mothers-favored marking pens,
illegible black letters bleeding into stain.

My mother knew nothing was permanent.
She'd seen how fast a child could disappear:
her two dead sisters with names like flowers:
Lily, Rose, their summery smells, indelible voices.

That's why she sewed my name so tight
on all four sides, double-knotted the knots.
So I wouldn't forget when she sent me off
into the wet, the dark, the wild: I was hers.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's (books by this author) masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published. He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.

But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first great American novel that could reach a large audience. A total of 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published on March 16, and they sold out within 10 days.

It's the birthday of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, (books by this author) born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). He's known as the "Father of the Constitution." At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was the leading voice of the Federalists, who argued for a strong central government, including a strong executive branch, long terms in the Senate, federal courts, and a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one part of the government would ever become too powerful.

Madison said, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman, (books by this author) born in New York City (1952). She's known for mixing fantasy and magic with everyday reality, in novels such as White Horses (1982), Illumination Night (1987), and The River King (2001).

Her parents got a divorce when she was eight years old, at a time when not many couples got divorces, and she was raised on Long Island by her working mother. She loved reading Grimm's fairy tales and Ray Bradbury novels, and watching fantasy movies like Mary Poppins (1964). She started writing stories, dividing them into two categories — fantasy and realism. It wasn't until she read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) that she realized you could "take everyday realities and transform them into something fabulous."

Hoffman's latest novel, Skylight Confessions, came out this past January (2007).

It's the birthday of poet Cesar Vallejo, (books by this author) born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner, and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and he later became a socialist.

In 1920, he found himself caught up in a festival in his hometown — a festival that deteriorated into looting and arson. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail. After he was released from prison, he moved to Paris, where he slept on subway trains and park benches for months. He eventually founded a literary magazine in Paris and published several collections of poetry. He spent the last years of his life promoting Russia's communist policies and trying to gain support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

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