Nov. 7, 2007

Pushing Back

by David Lee Garrison

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Poem: "Pushing Back" by David Lee Garrison, from Sweeping the Cemetery: New and Selected Poems. © Browser Books Publishing, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Pushing Back

Dad always took us
to see educational things—
dams, glass factories, paper mills,
the Smithsonian.
He would stop the car
and walk into a field
to ask a farmer
what he was planting
or have one of us
jump out and read
a historical marker out loud.
We went two hundred miles
out of our way one time
to take a guided tour
of America's largest
open pit copper mine,
and I remember
nothing about it.

But I remember the town
where the miners lived,
those grayish wooden houses
pushing back
against the mountain.
Stairs to the roofed porches sagged;
here and there, a gutter
flopped in the wind.

A girl about my age
rode a tricycle
on the sidewalk,
pedaling barefoot
with her head down,
singing as she watched
her thin legs pump
and the concrete go by.

The car windows were open,
and our eyes teared up
from the dust in the air.
My father drove slowly
and said nothing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt, (books by this author) born in Boston (1943), who founded a school of literary criticism called New Historicism, which is the idea that the only way to really understand a work of art is to examine everything that was going on in the world of the artist at the time the work of art was created. Greenblatt had only written works of academic scholarship when he saw the movie Shakespeare in Love in 1998 and that inspired him to write a book about Shakespeare for the general reader, piecing together everything we know about his life and the world he lived in, and making guesses about why he wrote what he wrote. Greenblatt said, "[I wanted] to throw the windows open and see what was outside the room that he was working in, and what he descended to when he descended onto the street." The result was Greenblatt's book Will in the World (2004), which became his first best-seller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Stephen Greenblatt said, "I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed — personally and intimately — to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago."

It was on this day in 1917 that the Russian Revolution took place. In the years leading up to it, hundreds of thousands of Russians had died in World War I, there'd been a series of food shortages, and prices of available goods had risen by more than 700 percent in just three years.

The revolution was led by Vladimir Lenin, who had been in exile in Switzerland, plotting to overthrow the Russian government. In April 1917, he crossed the border back into Russia for the first time in 10 years and went underground. He had to sneak through the streets in a disguise to attend a meeting of the Bolsheviks in late October of that year, but he persuaded a majority of his party to launch an armed takeover of the country. The coup met almost no resistance on this day in 1917, and the next day, Lenin was elected chairman of the Council of the new Soviet Government. Overnight, he had gone from a fugitive in hiding to the leader of the largest country in the world.

Lenin believed that a Communist country would need to be ruled at first by a military dictatorship, but that once Communism took hold, people would be so happy with the new system that the police state would wither away, and society would become a classless stateless paradise. But Russia remained a totalitarian police state for more than 70 years.

It's the birthday of writer Albert Camus, (books by this author) born in Mondovi, Algeria (1913), whose father was killed in the First World War when Camus was just a baby. He grew up in poverty, raised by his single mother, and almost died of tuberculosis when he was in high school. But when he moved to Paris in 1940, he began writing The Stranger (1942), about a man who kills an Arab on a beach for no apparent reason. The Stranger made him famous almost overnight, and he went on to write other novels, plays, and essays that became associated with existentialist philosophy, including The Plague (1947) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1955). He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1957, just 15 years after his first book was published. He was killed in a car accident in 1960.

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