Aug. 21, 2009


by Jo McDougall

Growing up in a small town,
we didn't notice
the background figures of our lives,
gray men, gnarled women,
dropping from us silently
like straightpins to a dressmaker's floor.
The old did not die
but simply vanished
like discs of snow on our tongues.
We knew nothing then of nothingness
or pain or loss—
our days filled with open fields,
turtles and cows.

One day we noticed
Death has a musty breath,
that some we loved
died dreadfully,
that dying
sometimes takes time.
Now, standing in a supermarket line
or easing out of a parking lot,
we realize
we've become the hazy backgrounds
of younger lives.
How long has it been,
we ask no one in particular,
since we've seen a turtle
or a cow?

"Straightpins" by Jo McDougall, from Satisfied with Havoc. © Autumn House Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn (1937), author of Dog Soldiers (1974), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), and Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (2007).

It was on this day in 1911 that the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The theft was pulled off so well that no one even noticed.

The next day, an artist named Louis Béroud went to the Louvre, intending to paint a girl doing her hair in the reflection from the pane of glass in front of the Mona Lisa. He wanted his painting to be a commentary on the debate around putting glass in front of paintings in the Louvre.

But when he got to the wall where the painting usually hung, it wasn't there. He asked the guards, and they said it was probably being photographed. But it wasn't with the photographers. The director of the museum, Théophile Homolle, was out of town — a man who had said the year before, "Steal the Mona Lisa?You might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame." Finally, museum officials got together and the police were called in, and everyone realized that the Mona Lisa was really gone.

The Louvre was shut down for a week to search every inch of it for the missing painting — since the Louvre takes up 49 acres, it was no easy task. But all they found was the frame and piece of glass.

More than two years later, in Italy, the thief contacted an art dealer and offered to sell him the Mona Lisa for $100,000. The art dealer met him, along with the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, explained that all he wanted was to return the Mona Lisa to Italy where it belonged. He said he would sell it as long as the men promised to hang it at the Uffizi and not let it go back to Paris. Peruggia was, of course, arrested, and the Mona Lisa was sent back to the Louvre … but not until it went on a tour across Italy.

It's the birthday of poet X.J. Kennedy, (books by this author) born Joseph Charles Kennedy in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He tells the story of his name this way: "All the time I was growing up I was mercilessly taunted for having same name as old Joe Kennedy, ambassador to England. When I was in the Navy, I was even stationed for a time on a destroyer, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. The kidding was fierce. So when I started sending poems off to magazines, I thought I would sign my name any crazy way I could think of just to be different from all the better-known Kennedys, so I stuck the X on. I sent poems to The New Yorker, because I didn't know where you sent poems, and they took two of them. And I thought: My God! This is marvelous good luck, so I've kept the X ever since."

Then he won a big award, which gave him the chance to publish his first book, Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), and it got good reviews. Along with books of poetry, he started publishing college textbooks about literature, and poetry for kids, and he's kept at all three ever since. His most recent books are Peeping Tom's Cabin: Comic Verse 1928–2008, which was actually published in 2007, and In A Prominent Bar in Secaucus (2007).

It's the birthday of jazz pianist and bandleader Count Basie, born William James Basie in Red Bank, New Jersey (1904). One night in 1936, when they were still small-time performers, Basie and his nine-piece band were being played on a radio station in Kansas City, and the radio announcer wanted to say something to show that William Basie was in the same league as Duke Ellington, so he called him Count Basie. The jazz critic and producer John Hammond heard that broadcast, and he got a hold of Count Basie and told him to expand to a full big band lineup and move to New York. Basie led the Count Basie Orchestra for almost 50 years, until his death in 1984.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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