Aug. 1, 2007


by Mark Perlberg

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Poem: "Summer" by Mark Perlberg, from The Impossible Toystore. © Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


I am watching the gardener trim our lawn. He pushes a mower
with a wooden handle over the grass, making dark stripes where
he cuts. The blades purr, sending up a little stream of green
as he pushes and pulls the mower forward and back. The green
arc sprays into a canvas grass catcher hooked to the mower's
wheels. I sit on the steps and tease a beetle with a blade
of grass as it moves up the slate walk. On the long summer days
between the times when the gardener comes with his truck and
his men to trim and edge the lawn and cut the long hedges, I
cut the grass, pushing our wooden mower. Or maybe I only dream
it, because I am very young and the sweet grass smell engenders
dreams. I water the lawn with the long rubber hose, sending
a fine buzz of water tickling down my arm, dripping on my sneakers.
Each day is stretched, is strangely long, and when the sun presses
on the tops of the trees at the edge of town, it floods the lawn
with the clearest watery light. Mother talks with someone on the
porch. Their voices blend with the purr of the mower and the
hiss of the water. The house is cool and airy. The winter
rugs and drapes and bedspreads have been taken up and stored in
the attic. The chairs wear cool summer coverings that are crisp
and shine a little in the afternoon light. We still live in the
big brick house at the head of the street. Father hasn't died yet.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the lyrics for our national anthem, Francis Scott Key, born in Frederick, Maryland (1779). He was 35 years old in 1814, when he composed the poem "The Star Spangled Banner," as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The British had recently begun using rockets, a new military weapon adapted from Chinese technology. Those rockets rained down on Fort McHenry all night, but just after sunrise Francis Scott Key saw the American flag still flying over the fort. He might never have even seen the flag at all if the fort commander, Major Armistead, hadn't insisted on flying one of the largest American flags then in existence. The flag flying that day was 30 feet high and 42 feet long.

It's the birthday of Herman Melville (books by this author), born in New York City (1819). When he was 12, his father died, after having racked up a huge amount of debt. Melville was pulled out of school and sent to work at a bank for $150 a year. But he hated the job so much that he finally quit and signed on with a whaling ship, and his adventures as a sailor made him a writer. While he was at sea, he jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and lived for several weeks with the natives. When he got back to America, he wrote a book about his time with the natives called Typee (1846), and it became a big success.

In 1847, he borrowed an edition of Shakespeare from a friend. He'd always had trouble reading Shakespeare because he had poor eyesight, and most of the Shakespeare editions were printed with small type. But this one was printed in large type, and Melville was blown away by what he could finally enjoy. Reading Shakespeare made Melville want write a great book that would rank with the masterpieces of English literature. And so he began Moby-Dick, the story of a young man named Ishmael who joins a whaling expedition only to find that the ship's captain, Ahab, is dangerously obsessed with hunting down a mysterious white whale, which once tore off his leg.

Melville started Moby-Dick in the winter of 1850 and finished in the summer of 1851, writing all day every day without eating until four or five o'clock in the evening. When it was finally printed, he handed one of the first copies of the book to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tavern, and later said that that was the best day of his life. But Moby-Dick was a total flop. Melville's readers wanted adventure stories, and Moby-Dick was an adventure story, but the adventure was obscured by the language. It takes more than a hundred pages before the characters even get on the boat. The book got terrible reviews, and nobody read it.

But if Moby-Dick was a financial failure, Melville's next book, Pierre (1852), fared even worse. Melville eventually gave up on writing fiction and turned to poetry, which he had to publish himself. He spent the last 20 years of his life working as a customs inspector. It wasn't until the 1920s that his work was rediscovered.

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