May 26, 2007


by Kathleen Jamie

SATURDAY, 26 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Suitcases" by Kathleen Jamie, from Waterlight: Selected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Piled high in a corner of second-hand store
in Toronto: of course,
it's an immigrant country. Sometimes

all you can take is what you can carry
when you run: a photo, some clothes,
and the useless dead-weight

of your mother tongue.
One was repaired
with electrician's tape—a trade

was all a man needed. A girl,
well, a girl could get married. Indeed
each case opened like an invitation:

the shell-pink lining, the knicker—
like pockets you hook back
with a finger to look

for the little linked keys.
I remember how each held a wraith
of stale air, and how the assistant seemed

taken aback by my accent;
by then, though, I was headed for home,
bored, and already pregnant.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1521 that German priest and theologian Martin Luther (books by this author) was declared an outlaw and his writings were banned by the Edict of Worms. The edict made Luther more of a hero than he already was, and it's a big reason that Protestantism caught on so quickly.

Luther was a monk and a professor of theology at Wittenberg, and he was disturbed by the way the church made money from its people. One of the church's profitable ventures was charging people admission to see holy relics, mostly bones of saints. By 1520, there were about 19,013 holy bones on display at the Castle Church in Wittenberg alone. It had become a kind of holy relic Disneyland. If someone paid to see each and every bone in the collection, he could reduce his stay in Purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days.

Luther was disgusted. So on the eve of All Saints' Day in 1517, he posted 95 theses attacking indulgences and other church practices on the door of his church. The theses were originally written in Latin, but they became so popular that people demanded they be translated into German, and so they were. Hundreds of copies were printed up on a printing press, which was still a fairly recent invention, and Luther's message spread throughout Germany and Europe. When another theologian published counter-theses, they were burned publicly by Luther's students.

In 1520, Luther published even more controversial writings, attacking papal authority and the whole structure of the church. Religious leaders and politicians began to realize how dangerous he was becoming to the traditional church, and in April of 1521, he was called before a legal assembly of the Holy Roman Empire in the city of Worms. Luther had to appear twice before the emperor, and each time he was told to take back his teachings. He said, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason... my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

Luther was declared an outlaw, which meant that he could be killed by anybody without the threat of punishment. He went into hiding in the Wartburg, where he grew out his hair and beard and began translating the Bible into German. He never stopped considering himself a Catholic, but his writings inspired the Protestant Reformation. He married a nun, breaking the vow of chastity, and finished his days in a small church, giving mass in German instead of Latin.

It's the birthday of the novelist Alan Hollinghurst (books by this author), born in Stroud, England (1954). He became the first openly gay novelist to win the Man Booker Prize. As a young man, he wanted to be a poet. But after he signed a book contract with Faber & Faber, he suddenly lost his ability to write poetry. He hasn't written another poem since.

So Hollinghurst decided to try writing a novel. He said, "[I wanted] to write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position... something that hadn't really been done."

The result was his book The Swimming Pool Library (1988), which was a big success when it came out in 1988. He won the Booker Prize for his most recent novel, The Line of Beauty (2004) (buy now).

It's the birthday of photographer and author Dorothea Lange (books by this author), born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1895). She took some of the most famous photographs of the Great Depression, including White Angel Breadline, which depicted a crowd of well-dressed, newly unemployed men waiting for food on a bread line, and Migrant Mother, which showed a prematurely aged woman in a tattered tent with her children.

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