May 14, 2007


by Stephen Dunn

MONDAY, 14 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Sweetness" by Stephen Dunn, from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. © W.W. Norton, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Just when it has seemed I couldn't bear
   one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
   has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
   for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something, the world shrunk
   to mouth-size,
hand-size, and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
   that doesn't leave a stain,
no sweetness that's ever sufficiently sweet. ...

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
   was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
   to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
   Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
   then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don't care

where it's been, or what bitter road
   it's traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States of America. At first, it was a disaster. Their plan was to find gold or silver or a river route to the Pacific Ocean. But they settled in a swampland, the mosquitoes were terrible, and many people caught malaria. The colonists also had trouble growing enough food, and they failed to dig an adequate fresh-water well. There was an epidemic of dysentery and a severe food shortage. More than 400 people starved to death.

The colony only began to be a success when they stopped focusing on gold and began to grow tobacco. It was John Rolfe who introduced a new type of tobacco plant from the West Indies. The crop proved enormously profitable, and it inspired more investment and more colonists to join the settlement. Rolfe went on to marry the princess Pocahontas.

By 1619, Jamestown was thriving, and it was that year that the settlers formed a new kind of government with a general assembly, the members of which were elected by the citizens of the colony. It was the first-ever representative government in what became the United States. That very same year, a ship arrived in Jamestown carrying 50 African slaves, 20 of which were purchased for work in the tobacco fields. And so Jamestown became the place where both democracy and slavery were born in America.

It was on this day in 1796 that the doctor Edward Jenner (books by this author) inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox, the first safe vaccine ever developed.

Smallpox was the most devastating disease in the world at the time—a disease that caused boils to break out all over the body. It killed about one in every four adults who caught it, and one in every three children. It was so contagious that most human beings in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives. During the 18th century alone, it killed about 60 million people.

Jenner submitted a paper about his new inoculation procedure to the prestigious Royal Society of London, but it was rejected. So Jenner published his ideas at his own expense in a 75-page book that came out in 1798. The book was a huge sensation. The procedure eventually caught on, and it was called a "vaccine" after the Latin word for cow. It wasn't perfect at first, because of poor sanitation and dirty needles, but it was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease.

What made it so remarkable was that Jenner accomplished this before the causes of disease were even understood. It would be decades before anyone even knew about the existence of germs.

It was on this day in 1804 that Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Louis, Missouri, on their overland expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. They were very different men. Clark was levelheaded and easy going. Lewis was romantic and ambitious and prone to depression. On the day they set out, William Clark wrote in his journal, "Rained the fore part of the day. ... I Set out at 4 oClock P.M., in the presence of many of the neighboring in habitants, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie ... a heavy rain this after-noon." Meriwether Lewis wrote on the same day, "We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life."

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




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