Oct. 26, 2007

The Pistachio Nut

by Robert Bly

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Poem: "The Pistachio Nut" by Robert Bly, from My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy. © Harper Collins, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Pistachio Nut

God crouches at night over a single pistachio.
The vastness of the Wind River Range in Wyoming
Has no more grandeur than the waist of a child.

Haydn tells us that we've inherited a mansion
On one of the Georgia sea islands. Then the last
Note burns down the courthouse and all the records.

Everyone who presses down the strings with his own fingers
Is on his way to Heaven; the pain in the fingertips
Goes toward healing the crimes the hands have done.

Let's give up the notion that great music is a way
Of praising human beings. It's good to agree that one drop
Of ocean water holds all of Kierkegaard's prayers.

When I hear the sitar give out the story of its life,
I know it is telling me how to behave-while kissing
The dear one's feet, to weep over my wasted life.

Robert, this poem will soon be over; and you
Are like a twig trembling on the lip of the falls.
Like a note of music, you are about to become nothing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1776 that Benjamin Franklin left for a diplomatic mission to France, to gain support for the American Revolution. The colonies had few munitions, and no money to buy munitions, and nowhere near the manpower available to win a war against one of the most powerful nations on Earth. Franklin was hoping that France could help. He was 70 at the time, and he got a hero's welcome in Paris. He was applauded in the streets; shopkeepers began selling clocks, snuffboxes, and walking sticks decorated with his portrait, and women began wearing wigs that imitated the style of Franklin's wig.

The French government didn't have a lot of money at the time, so they were reluctant to help the colonies, but Franklin's genius was to play France and Britain against each other. He let it be known to British diplomats that he was close to an alliance with France, and the British diplomats began to offer terms for ending the war. He then let it be known to France that he might negotiate peace with the British, and the French responded by finally giving him the alliance he wanted.

The signing ceremony for the treaty with France took place at Versailles on March 20, 1778. Franklin wore a simple suit of brown velvet cloth and the spectacles that he had invented. After the treaty was signed, he was served dinner, and then he was given the honor of standing next to Queen Marie Antoinette while she played at the gambling tables. She refused to speak to him.

Thanks to Ben Franklin, France supplied 90 percent of the gunpowder used in the first years of the Revolution, $13 billion in aid, and they even provided troops. But some historians believe that their support destabilized the French economy, which led to their own revolution in 1789.

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton, beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote, about a young woman in Europe. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but he also said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he heard that she'd used the advance from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he said that he hoped his next book would give him enough to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated their friendship, and near the end of his life, he wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ... might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."

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