Oct. 26, 2009

I Had Been a Polar Explorer

by Mark Strand

I had been a polar explorer in my youth
and spent countless days and nights freezing
in one blank place and then another. Eventually,
I quit my travels and stayed at home,
and there grew within me a sudden excess of desire,
as if a brilliant stream of light of the sort one sees
within a diamond were passing through me.
I filled page after page with visions of what I had witnessed—
groaning seas of pack ice, giant glaciers, and the windswept white
of icebergs. Then, with nothing more to say, I stopped
and turned my sights on what was near. Almost at once,
a man wearing a dark coat and broad-brimmed hat
appeared under the trees in front of my house.
The way he stared straight ahead and stood,
not shifting his weight, letting his arms hang down
at his side, made me think that I knew him.
But when I raised my hand to say hello,
he took a step back, turned away, and started to fade
as longing fades until nothing is left of it.

"I Had Been a Polar Explorer" by Mark Strand, from Man and Camel. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, born in New Orleans (1911), who was encouraged to become a blues singer, but she refused to sing anything but gospel because she said, "When you sing gospel you have a feeling there is a cure for what's wrong. But when you are through with the blues, you've got nothing to rest on."

It's the birthday of the novelist Pat Conroy, (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1945), whose mother read him Gone with the Wind and told him stories about her aristocratic ancestors, even though she never had any. He said, "She was poor white trash who spent her whole life denying it as bitterly and vehemently as she could … [she] was really the first fiction writer in the family." Conroy went on to write a series of best-selling novels about dysfunctional Southern families, including The Great Santini (1976) and The Prince of Tides (1986).

Today is the 50th birthday of medical doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer — born in North Adams, Massachusetts (1959) — the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder's (books by this author) recent book: Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World (2003). He specializes in infectious diseases, and sets up hospitals and community health centers to provide free health care to the world's poor.

He got started 26 years ago by treating patients in Haiti when still a student. There, he gave HIV-positive pregnant women antiretroviral drugs so that HIV would not be transmitted to their unborn babies. He also set up community-based treatment programs in Peru for virulent tuberculosis; the TB strain was once considered a death sentence, but his treatment method cured 80 percent of infected patients. He set up a program for treating the sick in Russian prisons, and other programs in Lesotho and Malawi. Paul Farmer now resides much of the year in Rwanda, where he and the organization he co-founded, Partners in Health, are working with the Rwandan government and the Clinton Foundation to set up an ambitious national health program.

Paul Farmer has written more than 100 scholarly publications; among his books are AIDS and Accusation (1992), Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues (1998), and Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (2003), in which he wrote, "In an age of explosive development in the realm of medical technology, it is unnerving to find that the discoveries of Salk, Sabin, and even Pasteur remain irrelevant to much of humanity."

Today is the birthday of Hillary Clinton, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1947), the daughter of a man who sold draperies and was so frugal that even on the coldest winter nights in Illinois, he would turn the heat in the house off, and then wake up early in the morning to warm the house back up before everyone else arose. Her father was a Republican, and she started her political life as one also, campaigning for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Her first year in college, she was president of the Wellesley Young Republicans student group, but within a couple years, influenced especially by the events of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Vietnam War, she shifted her political views.

Her senior year, she wrote a thesis about the strategies and tactics of a radical community activist.

She traveled for the summer and then started law school at Yale. It was at Yale that she met Bill Clinton, and the first time she saw him was at the student center there.

She's the author of It Takes A Village (1995), about the responsibilities of communities to see that children succeed. She's also written an autobiography, Living History (2003), for which she was paid an advance of $8 million by the publisher. The book sold more than a million copies within the first month it was published.

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