Aug. 26, 2007

Fixer of Midnight

by Reuel Denney

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Poem:"Fixer of Midnight" by Reuel Denney, from In Praise of Adam. © The University of Chicago Press, 1961. Reprinted with permission.

Fixer of Midnight

He went to fix the awning,
Fix the roping,
In the middle of the night,
On the porch;
He went to fix the awning,
In pajamas went to fix it,
Fix the awning,
In the middle of the moonlight,
On the porch;
He went to fix it yawning;
The yawing of his awning
In the moonlight
Was his problem of the night;
It was knocking,
And he went to fix its flight.
He went to meet the moonlight
In the porch-night
Where the awning was up dreaming
Dark and light;
It was shadowy and seeming;
In the night, the unfixed awning,
In his nightmare,
Had been knocking dark and bright.
It seemed late
To stop it in its dark careening.
The yawner went to meet it,
Meet the awning,
By the moon of middle night,
On his porch;
And he went to fix it right.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the inventor and aviation pioneer Joseph Montgolfier, born in Annonay, France (1740). He and his brother Étienne made a bag out of silk and lit a fire under the opening and watched it take off. They thought it was the smoke that caused the bag to rise. So in 1783, they made a huge bag out of cloth and paper and held its opening over an extra smoky fire of sheep's wool and damp straw. The bag slowly inflated to a height of about 110 feet. When it was full, the brothers released it, and it rose more than 3,000 feet into the air.

The big day for the Montgolfiers' invention came on November 21, 1783, when the first human beings in history took flight. Joseph and Étienne decided not to be the pioneers themselves. Instead, they sent up two volunteers, one of whom was a major in the French army. Almost half a million people came to watch the takeoff from Paris.

At first, there was so much smoke that the two pilots could barely breathe, but slowly the blue cotton cloth balloon inflated, showing its gold embroidery pattern. And once it was full, the crowd of spectators watched as the first human beings ever to fly rose into the air. They floated over Paris for almost a half and hour.

One of the people watching the takeoff that day was Benjamin Franklin. When asked what practical purpose this new flying contraption might have, Franklin replied, "What use is a new born baby?"

It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood (books by this author), born in Cheshire, England (1904). He's best known for the novels he wrote about life in Berlin, just before the rise of the Nazi party, including Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), Sally Bowles (1937), and Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

It's the birthday of novelist Julio Cortázar (books by this author), born in Brussels, Belgium to Argentine parents (1914). He wrote dreamlike, fantastic stories, collected in books such as Blow Up and Other Stories (1956). In one story, a man reading a mystery novel becomes the murder victim in very novel he is reading. In another, a man staring at an animal in a zoo suddenly realizes that he has become the zoo animal. And in another, a man in a hospital dreams that he is about to be sacrificed by Aztecs, only to realize that he actually is about to be sacrificed by Aztecs, and has only been dreaming that he was in a hospital.

It was one this day in 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing American women the right to vote, was declared in effect. After the Congress passed the amendment, it had to be ratified by a majority of state legislatures. The state that tipped the balance was Tennessee, and the man who cast the deciding vote was the 24-year-old representative Harry Burn, the youngest man in the state legislature that year. Before the vote, he happened to read his mail, and one of the letters he received was from his mother. It said, "I have been watching to see how you stood but have noticed nothing yet. ... Don't forget to be a good boy and ... vote for suffrage."

At the house, supporters of suffrage sat in the balcony, wearing yellow roses. On the house floor, those who opposed suffrage wore red roses. When Burn entered the room, he wore a red rose and the anti-suffrage camp thought they had his vote. But when he was called on to say aye or nay for the ratification of the 19th Amendment, he said, "Aye," and the amendment was ratified by a vote of 49 to 47. A witness there that day said, "The women took off their yellow roses and flung them over the balcony, and yellow roses just rained down."

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