May 19, 2007

Appeal to the Grammarians

by Paul Violi

SATURDAY, 19 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Appeal to the Grammarians" by Paul Violi, from Overnight. © Hanging Loose Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Appeal to the Grammarians

We, the naturally hopeful,
Need a simple sign
For the myriad ways we're capsized.
We who love precise language
Need a finer way to convey
Disappointment and perplexity.
For speechlessness and all its inflections,
For up-ended expectations,
For every time we're ambushed
By trivial or stupefying irony,
For pure incredulity, we need
The inverted exclamation point.
For the dropped smile, the limp handshake,
For whoever has just unwrapped a dumb gift
Or taken the first sip of a flat beer,
Or felt love or pond ice
Give way underfoot, we deserve it.
We need it for the air pocket, the scratch shot,
The child whose ball doesn't bounce back,
The flat tire at journey's outset,
The odyssey that ends up in Weehawken.
But mainly because I need it—here and now
As I sit outside the Caffe Reggio
Staring at my espresso and cannoli
After this middle-aged couple
Came strolling by and he suddenly
Veered and sneezed all over my table
And she said to him, "See, that's why
I don't like to eat outside."

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1930). She's best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), about an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago.

It opened on Broadway in 1959, and it was a big success, going on to play for more than 500 performances over two years. It was the first Broadway play to be written by a black woman. For most members of the audience, it was the first time they had seen the life of a regular black family portrayed on stage or in film.

The play inspired a new generation of black playwrights that included August Wilson and Ntozake Shange, and it helped to spawn several black theater troupes in the 1960s and '70s. In 1961, it was made into a movie, with most of the original cast; in 1973, it was made into a Tony Award-winning musical; and in 1989, it was produced for television.

It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Nora Ephron, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). She started out as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines like the New York Post and Esquire. But in 1978, she turned to screenwriting, and since she's worked on numerous movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

It was on this day in 1536 that Anne Boleyn was beheaded for the charge of adultery, only a few years after she had inspired King Henry VIII to found the Church of England just so that he could marry her.

When she met Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn was an 18-year-old girl who had plenty of admirers. She was beautiful, but she was also the smartest woman most men at the time had ever met. She could debate theology and discuss literature with the finest intellectuals of the era. When Henry met her, the thing he admired most was that she could talk to him like an equal. She might have just been another of the king's mistresses, but she was an extremely ambitious young woman. And so she told the king that she couldn't give herself to him unless they were married.

So Henry decided to break with his wife of more than 20 years, and he asked the pope for an annulment of his first marriage. The pope refused, and so Henry declared himself the head of the new Church of England and granted himself an annulment in his own matrimonial suit.

Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn in 1533. It was only the second time in English history that a king had married for love. And yet, that marriage didn't last long. Within a few years, Henry had decided that he didn't like being married to an intellectual equal. He also didn't like that their first child was a girl. The one thing that might have saved Anne would have been a male child. She got pregnant for the second time in 1535, and after nine tense months of waiting, she did give birth to a son, but he was stillborn. A few months later, she was arrested on charges of adultery. Most historians believe the charges were false.

She was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a little more than two weeks, and then she was beheaded. After her death, all original portraits of her were discarded; not one is known to exist. Most of her books and correspondence were also destroyed, along with poems and songs she wrote. Her rivals spread rumors and made up stories about her, to defame her reputation in the history books, claiming that she'd been ugly and deformed, with a sixth finger on one hand and a huge hump on her neck. But despite all that, her daughter Elizabeth, the daughter that had so disappointed Henry VIII, grew up to become one of the most influential queens in British history.

It's the birthday of civil rights activist Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska (1925). After a career of activism, he was shot and killed by members of the Nation of Islam at a rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. He was 39 years old. Just before he died, he had dictated his life story to the writer Alex Haley, and it was published a few months after his death as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965).

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