Dec. 19, 2007

Us Together

by George Johnston

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Poem: "Us Together" by George Johnston, from The Essential George Johnston, selected by Robyn Sarah. © The Porcupine's Quill, 2007. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Us Together

I do not like anything the way I
like you in your underwear I like you
and in your party clothes o my in your
party clothes and with nothing on at all
you do not need to wear a thing at all
for me to like you and you may talk or
not talk I like you either way nothing
makes me feel so nearly at home on Earth
as just to be with you and say nothing.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of singer Edith Piaf, (work by this artist) born Edith Giovanna Gassion, in Paris (1915). Piaf's mother was a cafe singer who abandoned her at birth, and her father was an acrobat who took her with him on tours and encouraged her to sing on the streets and in cafés. In a few years, she was singing in the top music halls of Paris and she had recorded two records. The passion and depression Edith Piaf's velvety voice conveyed earned her many famous admirers. Jean Cocteau wrote a play for her. To aid the French Resistance in World War II, Piaf traveled to German prisoner-of-war camps and sang for the French inmates. During these tours, she would be photographed with the POWs and those pictures would be enlarged and put on false ID cards, which she would distribute on the next visit. Today, there's a plaque in Paris where she was born that says, "On the steps of this house... was born into the greatest poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice later stunned the world."

It's he birthday of Henry Clay Frick, born in West Overton, Pennsylvania (1849). He became a partner of Andrew Carnegie, and after they feuded and parted ways, Frick made it one of his missions in life to one-up his former colleague. In Pittsburgh, he deliberately built the Frick Building 20 stories high to top the nearby 15-story Carnegie Building. In Manhattan, where Carnegie had a million-dollar mansion, Frick spent five times that much, just "to make Carnegie's look like a miner's shack," and he filled it with the masterpieces of Rembrandt, Goya, Bellini, and Degas. His house and the works have been turned into an art museum in New York called The Frick Collection.

It's the birthday of Constance Garnett, (books by this author) born in Brighton, England (1861). She gave us many of the first English translations of famous 19th-century Russian novels. Garnett could translate 5,000 words a day, scattering piles of pages at her feet as she wrote. She finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in six months, and translated a total of 80 volumes, including Dostoyevsky's complete works, which alone add up to about two and a half million words. But Garnett had a habit of skipping phrases that she didn't understand, she often missed the humor of the original Russian, and she altered sexuality in the novels to reflect her Victorian ideals. Critic Kornei Chukovsky compared her writings to "a safe blandscript: not a volcano... a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original." Constance Garnett's translations held up as the standard for decades, but now most of them are replaced by more nuanced versions of the Russian works.

It's the birthday of writer Italo Svevo, (books by this author) born in Trieste, Italy (1861). He was a closet writer who worked as a bank clerk and then got a job in his father-in-law's paint-making plant. When Svevo decided to take some English classes for business reasons, the tutor that he found turned out to be aspiring writer James Joyce, who was living in Trieste at the time. Svevo confessed to Joyce that he had written two failed novels, and after reading them, Joyce told Svevo that he was a neglected genius. Svevo was inspired to write a fictional memoir about a patient undergoing psychoanalysis, which took him 10 years to finish. His self-published book The Confessions of Zeno (1923) is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century.

It's the birthday of Jean Genet, (books by this author) born in Paris, France (1910). He was a burglar and a vagabond, who spent his time in prison reading contraband copies of Dostoyevsky and Stendhal, and he wrote fiction and poetry on brown paper bags. In prison, he penned a novel about a murderer who had been executed in jail, and a friend smuggled it out and gave it to the writer Jean Cocteau. Cocteau helped Genet get out of prison, and he published Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). Genet wrote many more novels, including Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief's Journal (1949). He said, "If my song was beautiful... who will dare to say that its inspiration was vile."

It's the birthday of novelist Eleanor Hodgman Porter, (books by this author) born in Littleton, New Hampshire (1868). She was the author of Pollyanna (1913), about a young girl who always tries to see the positive side of things despite her hardships. The book was wildly successful and was ultimately the basis for a play, a movie, a calendar, and a daily almanac of reasons to be glad. The word "Pollyanna" eventually entered our vocabulary, defined by Webster's Dictionary as, "One having a disposition or nature characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything; an overly and often blindly optimistic person."

It's the birthday of Richard Leakey, (books by this author) born in Nairobi, Kenya (1944). Both of Leakey's parents were anthropologists who had made groundbreaking discoveries, and Leakey made his own significant finds, including the bones of Homo Erectus, a nearly complete skeleton of a million-year-old youth discovered near Lake Turkana, Kenya. In 1989, he was named head of the corrupt Department of Parks and Wildlife and launched a "shoot to kill" campaign against illegal hunters. One summer, he oversaw a bonfire of more than 60 tons of ivory tusks seized from Kenyan poachers. His international ivory ban made him very unpopular and, in 1993, Leakey's small plane crashed in the wilderness north of Nairobi. And he lost both legs at the knee. His airplane was checked for tampering with inconclusive results. He is the author of The Origins of Humankind (1994) and The Sixth Extinction (1995).

On this day in 1732, Benjamin Franklin books by this author began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Franklin's Almanac included weather reports, eclipses, tides, and tables of English Kings. But what made it famous were the witty proverbs about life that Franklin included as filler, such as, "Well done is better than well said" and "Haste makes waste" and "Neither a Fortress nor a Maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley." Ben Franklin's inspiration may have come when he was 15 years old and he worked in his brother's print shop. He would sneak into work at night and leave letters to the editor signed "Silence Dogood." The letters became very popular, but when young Franklin told his brother James that he was writing them, the two came to blows and Ben ran away to Philadelphia. When Benjamin Franklin started Poor Richard's, his brother was publishing an almanac of his own called "Poor Robin's Almanac."

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) came out with A Christmas Carol. He got the idea in mid-October and struggled to finish the story in time for the holidays. He published the book himself with gilt-edged pages and a red bound cover within a week of Christmas and sold 6,000 copies in the first few days. The instant best-seller revived Christmas when it was on the decline in England, during the Industrial Revolution, and it launched Dickens into a fame much like The Beatles — on his reading tours, Charles Dickens was mobbed by adoring fans, who would rip his clothes, wait in long lines to shake his hand, and pull down the windows on his train car to grab at him.

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