Sep. 29, 2007

On Faith

by Cecilia Woloch

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Poem: "On Faith" by Cecilia Woloch, from Late. © BOA Editions Ltd., 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On Faith

How do people stay true to each other?
When I think of my parents all those years
in the unmade bed of their marriage, not ever
longing for anything else—or: no, they must
have longed; there must have been flickerings,
stray desires, nights she turned from him,
sleepless, and wept, nights he rose silently,
smoked in the dark, nights that nest of breath
and tangled limbs must have seemed
not enough. But it was. Or they just
held on. A gift, perhaps, I've tossed out,
having been always too willing to fly
to the next love, the next and the next, certain
nothing was really mine, certain nothing
would ever last. So faith hits me late, if at all;
faith that this latest love won't end, or ends
in the shapeless sleep of death. But faith is hard.
When he turns his back to me now, I think:
disappear. I think: not what I want. I think
of my mother lying awake in those arms
that could crush her. That could have. Did not.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is believed to be the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes, (books by this author) born near Madrid (1547), whose life was a series of misfortunes. As a young man, he fought in a war against the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, and he became a war hero, receiving special recognition from the king. But on the way home from the war, he was captured by pirates, held for ransom for five years, and chained to a wall for months at a time. He finally made it back to Spain, where nobody even remembered the battle he had fought in. So he took one of the only government jobs he could find: confiscating agricultural goods for the king. He had to travel around the countryside in all kinds of weather, arguing with shopkeepers and farmers, accused of corruption everywhere he went. Then in 1595, he was charged with embezzlement, even though he was probably one of the only honest employees working for the government at the time. Having escaped five years of captivity in Africa, Cervantes now found himself imprisoned in his own country for a crime he didn't commit.

And it was in prison that Cervantes first got the idea for his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605), a parody of the popular romance novels of the era — full of monsters, wizards, and beautiful princesses. Cervantes's novel was about a middle-aged man named Don Quixote who has read so many romance novels that he comes to believe they are true. So he embarks upon a career as a knight and takes as his squire a farmer he knows named Sancho Panza. The two go off on a series of misadventures, arguing constantly about whether they live in a world full of romance and enchantment, as Don Quixote sees it, or whether they live in a world of bandits and beggars, as Sancho Panza sees it.

The first volume of the novel was a best-seller, though it didn't make Cervantes much money, because there was no copyright at the time, and pirated editions were published all over Europe. So Cervantes wrote a second volume, in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza learn that they have become famous since someone has published a book about them. They travel around the country, correcting the falsehoods that have been spread about them, and they struggle to prove that they are indeed the real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, not the fictional versions. Most critics consider the second volume even better than the first.

Miguel de Cervantes said, "Too much sanity may be madness and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be."

It's the birthday of the physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901), the man who used Einstein's theories to build the first functioning nuclear reactor. He was studying radioactivity in the 1930s, and if he hadn't wrapped his uranium in tin foil, he might have discovered nuclear fission then, and his work might have fallen into the hands of the Nazis. But he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, and he used the prize as an opportunity to defect with his wife to the United States. He got involved in the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and he moved to the University of Chicago, where he built the first reactor there on a squash court under the stands of the university football field in late 1942.

Fermi and his team conducted the first nuclear reaction on the morning of December 2, 1942. Fermi's experiment lasted 28 minutes, and it was a complete success. News of the successful experiment was conveyed to Washington, D.C., in a coded message that said, "The Italian navigator has landed in the new world." Three years later, in the desert outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Fermi watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded.

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