Dec. 6, 2009


by Eavan Boland

In the worst hour of the worst season
   of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking-they were both walking-north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
   He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
   Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
   There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
   Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

"Quarantine" by Eavan Boland, from Against Love Poetry. © W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century, and he was the archbishop of Myra in Lycia (which is now Turkey). There are all kinds of stories about him, but one of the most famous is that there was a poor man who could not afford a dowry for his three daughters, which meant they would have to be abandoned to prostitution. St. Nicholas didn't want to humiliate the man by giving him charity in public, so he left purses of gold in the man's house at night — according to one version of the story, he dropped them down the chimney, and in another, one of the daughters had set out her stockings to dry and the gold was put in them. And so St. Nicholas, the bringer of anonymous gifts, inspired Jolly Old St. Nick, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in many European countries and in American cities with German influence like Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. On the evening of December 5th, children put out their shoes, and on this morning, they wake up to find those shoes filled with small gifts from St. Nick — chocolates and cookies, fruit, marbles or other small toys.

On this day, two major publications were first released: the Encyclopedia Britannica and The Washington Post.

The Britannica was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. The first installment came out on this day in 1768, and a new section was released every week, and it was finally completed in 1771 and was several thousand pages long. The entry for "woman," in its entirety, read: "'Female of Man' See HOMO."

The Washington Post came out on this day in 1877. It was four pages long and each letter was typeset by hand. It cost three cents.

It's the birthday of lyricist and composer Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershowitz in New York City (1896). His father was a businessman, dabbling in everything from restaurants to pool parlors to cigar stores, and Ira said: "When my father sold a business and started another we could inevitably move to a new neighborhood. … My father loved to start businesses, but then he lost interest. He'd go and play pinochle and wouldn't supervise the latest venture."

It's the birthday of diplomat and writer Baldassare Castiglione, (books by this author) born near Mantua, Italy (1478). He wrote poems, including love sonnets, but he is most famous for a book called Il Cortegiano (1528), or The Courtier, which described the ideal Renaissance nobleman. Castiglione based his observations on his many years as a courtier in the Court of Urbino, a court full of famous artists, writers, and intellectuals. He said that a courtier should have natural grace, intelligence, good looks, and noble birth; should be a skilled and brave fighter; not to mention have a thorough knowledge of art, literature, music, and philosophy. The book was translated into many languages, and it went through more than 100 editions.

He wrote, "Therefore let the man we are seeking, be very bold, stern, and always among the first, where the enemy are to be seen; and in every other place, gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them."

And it's the birthday of children's writer Susanna Moodie, (books by this author) born in Bungay, England (1803). She married an adventurous man who wanted to go settle in the wilderness of Canada, and so she went with him. She wrote about the hard life of the Canadian frontier in her memoirs, Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853), and novels like Flora Lyndsay (1854). Roughing It in the Bush has remained a classic and been called the Canadian version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

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