Sep. 4, 2007


by Tony Hoagland

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Poem: "Jet" by Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like booster rockets falling back to Earth

and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,

and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, usually constricted neck.

And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and then the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though

no one really hears. We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from,
to which we will never
be permitted to return.
We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Wright (books by this author), born in Roxie, Mississippi (1908). He grew up in the Jim Crow South, the son of a sharecropper and a schoolteacher. In 1927, he followed the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban centers in the North, winding up in Chicago. His early stories were about characters suffering under racism in the South, and his first book was called Uncle Tom's Children (1938). It was a big success, but Wright worried that the readers only liked it because it was full of black victims. He later wrote, "I had written a book which even bankers' daughters could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book ... it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears."

He moved to New York City and began writing his next novel on a yellow legal pad while sitting on a bench in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park, overlooking the brownstones and tenement houses below. He called the book Native Son (1940), the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who gets hired by his white slumlord, Mr. Dalton, to work as a chauffeur. Bigger catches the eye of Mr. Dalton's free-thinking daughter Mary, but when he takes Mary out on the town, she gets so drunk that he has to carry her home. He helps her into bed, but when she begins to make noise, he is terrified that he'll be caught with her, so he covers her mouth with a pillow, and accidentally smothers her. He tries to cover up the death, but after fleeing police he is eventually caught and put on trial for murder and sentenced to death.

While working on the book, Wright told friends that he didn't think it would ever be published. But once he toned down some of the more explicitly sexual scenes from the novel, it became a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and became a big best-seller. Today, many critics consider Wright's masterpiece to be his memoir Black Boy (1945).

It was on this day in 1886 that Geronimo, the last major Native American warrior, surrendered after 30 years of fighting in Arizona. The Apaches had largely been defeated by American troops. Their chief, Cochise, was dead, and the U.S. government forced them to live on a barren reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. But Geronimo organized a group of warriors to fight one last war of resistance. He fought for five years, and many military historians believe he was one of the most brilliant guerilla warfare strategists in history. He started out with a group of about 700 men, women, and children. He surrendered his forces twice, but each time he managed to escape.

For the last five months of the campaign, Geronimo led a band of only 37 warriors, pursued by 5,000 U.S. soldiers for five months without being captured. But Geronimo and his men finally got tired of living in the mountains, and so they surrendered on this day in 1886 in a place called Skeleton Canyon. He was essentially a prisoner of war for the rest of his life, but he was allowed to travel around the country, and he made a living by selling the buttons off his jacket and autographed photos of himself. He appeared at an exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, but he never saw Arizona again.

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