Nov. 16, 2007

Beside the Point

by Stephen Cushman

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Poem: "Beside the Point" by Stephen Cushman, from The Virginia Quarterly Review: Spring 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Beside the Point

The sky has never won a prize.
The clouds have no careers.
The rainbow doesn't say my work,
thank goodness.

The rock in the creek's not so productive.
The mud on the bank's not too pragmatic.
There's nothing useful in the noise
the wind makes in the leaves.

Buck up now, my fellow superfluity,
and let's both be of that worthless ilk,
self-indulgent as shooting stars,
self-absorbed as sunsets.

Who cares if we're inconsequential?
At least we can revel, two good-for-nothings,
in our irrelevance; at least come and make
no difference with me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1907 that Oklahoma became the 46th state of the nation. For most of the 1800s, it had been the place where displaced Indians from the east had been forced to live against their will. But as Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas all filled up with settlers and gold prospectors, Oklahoma became the last area of the frontier that had yet to be occupied by the flood of American pioneers. And so in March of 1889, President Benjamin Harrison announced that a 2-million acre section of the Indian Territory had been reclassified as "unassigned lands." And starting at noon on April 22 of that year, anyone who wanted a few acres of land could stake a claim as their own.

Fifty thousand settlers showed up for what became known as the Oklahoma land grab. They lined up along the borders of the so-called "unassigned lands," many of them sleeping on the ground until April 22, when officials fired off guns, and settlers began a mad dash into the territory. Some took off on horses, some ran in on foot. Some had their wagon axles break within a few yards, and they had to decide whether or not to chase the horses.

The settlers just had to pick an unclaimed section and drive a flag bearing their own name into it. In order to keep the land, they were required to work it for the next five years. There were disputes over who had claimed certain spots first. Newspaper reports that day included photographs of settlers drawing guns on each other. But there was little violence. The year after the land rush, 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau officially announced that America had no remaining frontier. Seventeen years later, on this day in 1907, Oklahoma qualified for statehood by amassing a population of more than 60,000 people.

It's the birthday of the playwright George S. Kaufman, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1889), who inherited a terrible case of hypochondria from his mother. She wouldn't let him play with other children, for fear of germs, and she wouldn't let him drink milk either. The only beverage he was allowed was boiled water. By the time he was an adult, he was terrified of being touched and he never shook hands. He was so afraid of dying in his sleep that he often didn't sleep for days. He once said, "The kind of doctor I want is one who when he's not examining me is home studying medicine."

But despite his quirks, Kaufman managed to cowrite more hit plays than anyone else in the history of Broadway, including Animal Crackers (1928), Strike Up the Band (1930), and You Can't Take It With You (1938). His various partners through the years all said that he was a meticulous rewriter and polisher, that he was never satisfied with a script even up till the last minute. Even on the most triumphant of opening nights, he could always be found backstage, pale and terrified that the play would be a flop.

It's the birthday of the novelist Andrea Barrett, (books by this author) born in Boston (1954), who is known for writing about botanists, oceanographers, and geologists in novels such as The Forms of Water (1993) and The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998). She said, "I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they're any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There's that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it." Her most recent book is The Air We Breathe, which came out last month (2007).

It's the birthday of the novelist Chinua Achebe, (books by this author) born in Ogidi, Nigeria (1930). His great-uncle was the man who first received European missionaries into his village. His father became one of the village's early converts to Christianity. Achebe was baptized as a Christian and spent his childhood reading the Bible every day. He went on to study literature at a school run by Europeans, but when he first read Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, about the colonization of Africa, he realized that nobody had written a novel from the point of view of the Africans. So he wrote Things Fall Apart (1958), which became an international best-seller and helped inspire a whole generation of African writers.

It's the birthday of the novelist Jose Saramago, (books by this author) born in a small village northeast of Lisbon, Portugal (1922). He published his first few novels when he was in his 20s and then stopped writing fiction for the next 30 years. He said, "That was maybe one of the wisest decisions of my life ... I had nothing worthwhile to say." He didn't start writing fiction again until the newspaper where he worked was shut down by the government. So he moved to a small peasant village and wrote a novel about the people there called Raised from the Ground (1980). His breakthrough novel was Blindness (1997), about a mysterious disease that causes everyone in a city to lose their sight. It was an international best-seller and a year later, in 1998, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Jose Saramago said, "If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you. No one else has lived your life."

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