Dec. 15, 2007

At Least That Abandon

by Kenneth Rexroth

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Poem: "At Least That Abandon" by Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © New Directions, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

At Least That Abandon

As I watch at the long window
Crowds of travelers hurry
Behind me, rainy darkness
Blows before me, and the great plane
Circles, taxis to the runway
Waits, and then roars off into
The thick night. I follow it
As it rises through the clouds
And levels off under the stars.
Stars, darkness, a row of lights,
Moaning engines, thrumming wings,
A silver plane over a sea
Of starlit clouds and rain bound
Sea. What I am following
Is a rosy, glowing coal
Shaped like the body of a
Woman — rushing southward a
Meteor afire with the
Same fire that burns me unseen
Here on the whirling earth amongst
Bright, busy, incurious
Faces of hundreds of people
Who pass me, unaware of
The blazing astrophysics
Of the end of a weekend.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1791 that the Bill of Rights was adopted by the United States, thanks in part to a man who hasn't gotten a lot of credit, George Mason. He was a lifelong friend of George Washington's who wasn't interested in politics, but when Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army, George Mason reluctantly took over his friend's seat on the Virginia legislature. And then Mason was assigned by chance to the committee to write the new state constitution.

Mason had read the philosopher John Locke, and he liked Locke's idea that all people are born with certain rights, and that government's purpose should be to protect those rights. George Mason believed that the best way to protect those rights would be to list them in the constitution itself. And so he put together Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," the first government document in history that specified the absolute rights of individuals. Mason's ideas about rights and freedom influenced a 25-year-old legislator named James Madison, who passed them along to his friend Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson would go on to use Mason's ideas in his own draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Mason was asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention after the war, but he disagreed with the other delegates on numerous issues, especially slavery, which he thought should be outlawed in the new constitution. He fought for the inclusion of a list of rights, like the "Declaration of Rights" in the Virginia Constitution, but his idea for a bill of rights failed by a wide margin.

And so, when it came time to sign to the new U.S. Constitution, George Mason was one of the only men there who refused. He said, "I would sooner chop off [my] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." His decision ruined his friendship with George Washington. The two men never called on each other again. But he hoped that his protest would encourage an eventual passage of a bill of rights, and it did. His former protege, James Madison, introduced the Bill of Rights into the first session of Congress in 1789, and Madison used Virginia's Declaration of Rights as the model.

Even with the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution didn't provide full citizenship to blacks or women, among others, and it has had to be amended again and again over the years. But when we think of what it means to have a free country, most of our ideas about the meaning of freedom come from those first 10 amendments, adopted on this day in 1791, which include the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a fair trial. George Mason died in 1792, a year after those freedoms and rights became law.

It's the birthday of Irish writer Edna O'Brien, (books by this author) born in County Clare in the west of Ireland (1932), who had never purchased or owned a book of her own until she ran away from her small town and moved to Dublin, where she bought a copy of Introducing James Joyce (1942) by T.S. Eliot, which included passages from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). O'Brien later said reading Joyce "was the most astonishing literary experience of my life." She realized for the first time that a writer can draw on his or her own life for material; and she knew that's what she wanted to do for a living. She wrote her first novel, Country Girls (1960), in only three weeks.

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