Nov. 14, 2007

Rain In Childhood

by Eric Ormsby

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Poem: "Rain In Childhood" by Eric Ormsby, from For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems. © PGrove/Atlantic, 1999. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Rain In Childhood

This was the feeling that the dark rain gave
on school days when the windows of the bus
dimmed with all our breath and we pressed close
in jostling slickers, knowing the pleasure of
being a body with other bodies, we children
a flotilla of little ducks, paddling together
on the wet ride to the schoolhouse door.
Once there, we peered outside appraisingly,
beyond the windows and the balustrades
to where the rain came down outrageously
and made the trees and signposts and the light
at the intersection swoop and toss
and fizz with gritty torrents to the curb.

That steamy, tar-damp smell of morning rain,
its secret smokiness upon our mouths,
surprised us with some sorrow of nostalgia.
Our past already had such distances!
Already in that fragrance we could sense
the end of childhood, where remembrance stands.

And when thunder pummeled the embrittled clouds —
concussive ricochets that made the teacher
hover with the chalk held in her hand —
we saw the lighting lace the school's facade
with instantaneous traceries and hairline fires,
like a road map glimpsed by flashlight in a car.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the painters who helped invent Impressionism, Claude Monet, born in Paris (1840). He and his friend Auguste Renoir were among the first European painters to take their canvases outside to paint directly from nature. They would often work as quickly as they could, so that their paintings looked like sketches, and that sketchy style became known as Impressionism. Monet spent the rest of his career exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice. In a single day, he would often paint the same subject half a dozen times, from slightly different angles and in slightly different light, spending no more than about an hour on each canvas. In the last 30 years of his life, he painted almost nothing but the water lilies in his garden. Claude Monet, who said, "I am following Nature without being able to grasp her. I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers."

It's the birthday of cartoonist and author and William Steig, (books by this author) born in New York City (1907), who sold his first cartoon for $40 to The New Yorker when he was 23. It was a picture of one prison inmate telling another, "My son's incorrigible, I can't do a thing with him." He went on to publish more than 1,600 drawings for the magazine and painted 117 covers. But today, he's perhaps best known for his children's book Shrek! (1993), about an ugly green ogre who hears the prophecy of a witch that he will marry a princess even uglier than he. It was made into an animated movie in 2002.

It's the birthday of the conservative humorist and essayist P.J. [Patrick Jake] O'Rourke, (books by this author) born in Toledo, Ohio (1947). He's the author of Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics (1998) and Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism, which came out in 2004.

It's the birthday of the creator of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, (books by this author) born on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907).

On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, (more books by this author) his first really ambitious novel. Unfortunately, his British publisher had hired someone to go through the book and edit out anything too obscure or possibly obscene, and the result was that the language was changed in numerous places. But worst of all, the epilogue had been left out entirely. This confused a lot of British readers, because it didn't make sense how Ishmael, the narrator, had lived to tell the tale. The reviews were harsh, and the book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. As a writer, Melville never recovered from the disappointment. These days, college students buy 20,000 copies of Moby-Dick every year.

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