Jun. 20, 2007

Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile…

by Vikram Seth

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Poem: "Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile..." by Vikram Seth, from All You Who Sleep Tonight. © Phoenix The Orion Publishing Group Ltd, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

"Sit, drink Your coffee here; your work can wait awhile..."

Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
You're twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I'll
Reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead.

The world is too opaque, distressing and profound.
This twenty minutes' rendezvous will make my day:
To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Vikram Seth, (books by this author) born in Calcutta, India (1952). In 1975, he moved to the United States to get a Ph.D. in economics at Stanford, but he took poetry classes on the side. He wrote his dissertation on the economics of Chinese villages, and then got a grant to travel to China. He spent two years there, and in the summer of 1982, he decided to walk and hitchhike from China back to his birthplace in India, traveling through Tibet and Nepal along the way. He carried a journal with him and wrote down his thoughts throughout the journey.

When he got back to the United States, he sent his travel journal to a publisher, and it became the first book that publisher had accepted out of the slush pile in more than a decade. The book was called From Heaven Lake (1983), and it got great reviews.

Seth went on to publish several collections of poetry. He was reading a lot of book-length poems at the time, such as Byron's Don Juan and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and it occurred to him that no one had ever written a book-length poem about contemporary American life. So he wrote an epic rhymed poem about California yuppies called The Golden Gate. It tells the story of the computer engineers working in Silicon Valley, developing the early version of the personal computer. He sent the finished product to every poetry publisher in America, but they all turned him down. He almost gave up hope, but a fiction editor happened to pick up the manuscript. Seth hadn't even thought of trying to sell the book as a novel, but that's how it got published in 1986, as a novel in verse.

Seth moved back to Calcutta, India, to live with his parents in the late 1980s. He wanted to write something that would capture the sweep of history from India's independence up to present day, so he invented four Indian families and told what happened to each of them in the wake of India's independence. After several years of writing, he sent the manuscript to his agent. It was 5,000 pages long. His editor helped him trim it down to about 1,500 pages, but the novel, A Suitable Boy (1993), became the longest single-volume work of fiction in English since 1747. It became a best-seller in India, England, and the United States.

It's the birthday of the historian Peter Gay, (books by this author) born in Berlin (1923). His parents were non-religious Jewish members of the middle class. His father had fought on the German side during World War I and had been decorated for his service. But in 1938, his father's business was shut down by the Nazis. Gay fled Germany with his parents, sailing on a ship to Cuba and then to the United States. He attended high school briefly, but had to drop out to get a job to help support the family. One of his high school teachers was so impressed by him that she offered to tutor him at night to help him get a high school diploma.

He went on to study at Columbia University where he became a historian of ideas, writing about the way history shapes how people think. He's best known for his books The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (1966) and The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984). In his book Savage Reprisals (2003), he argues that novelists make bad social historians because they are so often inspired to criticize society by their own desire for revenge.

It was on this day in 1977 that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began to pump oil for the first time. It was the largest private construction project ever completed in United States history.

Oil companies had been drilling for oil in Alaska for years, without much luck. Then the company that would become Exxon decided to drill one more hole before giving up, and they struck what turned out to be the largest oil discovery in North America. The only problem was that the oil field was 800 miles away from the nearest harbor where oil tankers could pick up the oil and transport it to the rest of the world.

So the oil companies decided to build a pipeline to transport that oil across the state of Alaska, 48-inches in diameter, stretching 800 miles, zigzagging over three mountain ranges and crossing 34 major rivers, including the Yukon. Once it began pumping, about 1.9 million barrels of crude oil began flowing through the pipe every day, traveling at about 7 miles an hour to the port of Valdez.

It was on this day in 1893 that the verdict was announced in the trial of Lizzie Borden, who had been accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax. It was one of the first murder trials in American history that got covered by the national press, not because it involved anybody famous, but just because of the sensational nature of the crime.

The case against Lizzie was entirely circumstantial. No one had witnessed the murders, no weapon was found, and there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime. All the police could prove was that Lizzie had been in the house at the time of the murders, she had a lot of money to gain, and she had recently tried to buy poison at the local pharmacy.

The trial lasted for two weeks, and Lizzie was found innocent on this day in 1893. No one else was ever tried for the murder. She told the press on the day of her acquittal that it was the happiest day of her life, but she refused to say anything else. After the trial, she bought herself a three-story mansion, where she had running water for the first time in her life. She never spoke about the murders in public again.

Most newspapers, including The New York Times, wrote at the time that the trial of Lizzie Borden had been an unjust and cruel persecution of an innocent woman. But a journalist named Edwin H. Porter wrote the first book about the trial, The Fall River Tragedy (1893), in which he distorted much of the evidence and testimony at the trial, in order to make Lizzie look guilty. There have been dozens of books written about the murders since then, most of which implicate Lizzie as the murderer. So even though she was acquitted, she's become the most famous murderess in American history.

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




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