Apr. 4, 2007

Notes from the Other Side

by Jane Kenyon

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Poem: "Notes from the Other Side" by Jane Kenyon, from Constance. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course
no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the founders of the "Dada" movement, Tristan Tzara, (books by this author) born Samuel Rosenfeld in a small village in Romania (1896). During World War I, he moved to Zürich, which had become a kind of refuge for intellectuals and artists from all over Europe. James Joyce was there, and so was Vladimir Lenin. Many of these intellectuals felt that the world was falling apart. Tristan Tzara and his friends decided to respond to the situation by creating a new style of art based on nonsense they called "Dada," which in French means "hobby-horse." But it also means "Yes, Yes" in Romanian. The point of Dada was that the world had become meaningless, and so art should respond with meaninglessness. Tzara wrote the first Dada Manifesto, which was read aloud at a performance at the Cabaret Voltaire on July 14, 1916, calling for the abolition of history, religion, and traditional art forms. Tzara wrote," [Dada is the] absolute faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity."

He once gave a reading that was deliberately drowned out by the ringing of a bell, while another artist drew pictures behind him, only to erase them. He also liked to have two of his poems to be recited simultaneously on stage, so that the audience couldn't follow either one.

It's the birthday of reformer Dorothea Dix, (books by this author) born in Hampden, Maine (1802). After her grandmother died and left her a great deal of money, Dix no longer needed to work for a living, but she continued to volunteer as a teacher in various schools. In 1841, she volunteered to teach at the Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts. It was on a tour of the prison that she first saw mentally ill inmates chained to the walls in darkness, with no heat and little food, sleeping naked on the stone floor. She was horrified and began visiting nearly every prison in the state, documenting everything she saw.

In 1843, Dix went to the Massachusetts legislature to present her findings about the treatment of the mentally ill. She was the first American to argue that mentally ill people were not criminals, and she established the first hospitals dedicated to humane treatment of the insane. Despite serious health problems, including malaria, she spent the rest of her life traveling around the United States and Europe, speaking on behalf of the poor and disabled. She never married.

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Marguerite Duras, (books by this author) born in a small village near Saigon in what was then French Indochina (1914). She became know for her short, experimental novels such as The Sea Wall (1953) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1966), and screenplays for films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1966). Then at the age of 70, after struggling with alcoholism for much of her life, Duras decided to write a novel based on an adolescent affair she'd had with the Chinese man. That novel was The Lover (1984), and it was her first major literary success, becoming an international best-seller and winning France's top literary prize.

It's the birthday of blues singer Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915). In 1941, the musicologist Alan Lomax came through Mississippi, recording folk singers for the Library of Congress, and he made several recordings of Muddy Waters. Waters was blown away by the experience of hearing his own voice coming out of a machine. So in May of 1943, Waters took a train from Mississippi to Chicago. His only luggage was a suit of clothes and an acoustic guitar.

At the time, the most popular music in the nightclubs in Chicago was big band music. Waters tried to break through with his Mississippi blues, but he had a hard time playing loudly enough for anyone to hear him on his acoustic guitar at the noisy parties and bars where he played. So in 1944, he bought a cheap electric guitar from his uncle, which helped increase his sound level.

It was the first time anyone had played Mississippi blues on an electric guitar, which revolutionized the sound of the blues. His first big hit was "I Can't Be Satisfied," recorded in 1948.

On this day in 1968, the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author) was assassinated by a rifleman while standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to Tennessee to support a strike by the city's sanitation workers. The night before he died, he gave a speech at the Memphis Temple Church in which he said, "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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