Jan. 23, 2011
Three Perfect Days
In the middle seat of an airplane,
between an overweight woman
whose arm takes over the armrest
and a man immersed in his computer game,
I am reading the inflight magazine
about three perfect days somewhere: Kyoto
this time, but it could be anywhere—
Madagascar or one of the Virgin Islands.
There is always the perfect hotel
where at breakfast the waiter smiles
as he serves an egg as perfectly coddled
as a Spanish Infanta.
There are walks over perfect bridges—their spans
defying physics—and visits to zoos
where rain is forbidden,
and no small child is ever bored or crying.
I would settle now for just one perfect day
anywhere at all, a day without
mosquitoes, or traffic, or newspapers
with their headlines.
A day without any kind of turbulence—
certainly not this kind, as the pilot tells us
to fasten our seatbelts, and even
the flight attendants look nervous.
It's the birthday of founding father John Hancock, born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts (1737). There are a few United States Navy ships named after him, as well as several American cities, an insurance company, and some major buildings. Ten states in the Union have a Hancock County. But the thing John Hancock is most famous for is his big fanciful signature on the Declaration of Independence — supposedly, he wrote it that way so that King George III could read it without putting on his reading glasses. "John Hancock" is now a synonym for "autograph signature."
It's the birthday of poet John (Burton) Logan, (books by this author) born in Red Oak, Iowa (1923). Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, his poems appeared regularly in The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, New Republic, and other major literary publications, but he never achieved widespread fame. He wrote more than a dozen books of poems, including A Cycle for Mother Cabrini (1955), Ghosts of the Heart (1960), Spring of the Thief (1963), The Zig Zag Walk (1969), Song on the Dread of a Chill Spring (1970), The Anonymous Lover (1973) and Only the Dreamer Can Change the Dream (1975).
He was a great lyrical poet. He often called poetry "ballet for the ear." He was known for the melodic way that he read his poems aloud. His son said that "it was like going to a concert to hear him read."
A trip to the "Believe It or Not Museum" inspired his poem "Believe It," in which he wrote:
"There is a strawberry that grew
out of a carrot plant, a blade
of grass that lanced through a thick rock,
a cornstalk nineteen-feet-two-inches tall grown by George
Osborne of Silome, Arkansas.
There is something grotesque growing in me I cannot tell.
It has been waxing, burgeoning, for a long time."
And John Logan wrote, "Well, I am still a traveler and I don't know where / I live. If my home is here, inside my breast, / light it up! And I will invite you in as my first guest."
It's the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott, (books by this author) born in Castries, St. Lucia, a Caribbean island nation a few hundred miles north of Venezuela. At the time of his birth, it was a British colony, and in his poetry, he writes a lot about the effects of colonialism. His poetry books include In a Green Night (1962), The Star-Apple Kingdom (1979), The Fortunate Traveller (1981), The Arkansas Testament (1987), and The Prodigal (2004). His most recent collection, White Egrets (2010), was published last year and short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize.
He said in his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
"For every poet it is always morning in the world. History a forgotten, insomniac night; History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History."
From the archives:
It's the birthday of poet Louis Zukofsky, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1904. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and he grew up speaking Yiddish, and as a kid he saw Shakespeare in Yiddish at the local theater. But he learned English when he started school, was a good student and went to Columbia, and he decided he wanted to be a poet.
It's the birthday of the French writer Stendhal, (books by this author) born Marie-Henri Beyle in Grenoble (1783). He had a difficult childhood — he adored his mother, but she died when he was seven, and he didn't like his father or the Jesuit priest who taught him at home. But it probably wasn't all their fault — he also characterized his childhood self as "a little monster."
Beyle used more than 100 pseudonyms, but he is most famous as Stendhal, and it was as Stendhal that he wrote the two novels for which he is most famous: Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma, 1839).
It's the birthday of the Irish novelist J.G. Farrell, (books by this author) James Gordon Farrell, born in Liverpool, England (1935). His parents moved back to Ireland at the start of World War II. He went to college, taught for a year, and then moved to the Canadian Arctic to be a fireman for a construction company. Then he went to England to attend Oxford University, where he contracted polio, and he had to spend a long time in an iron lung in order to breathe. This formed the basis of his second novel, The Lung (1965), a black comedy whose hero, stricken by polio, has a craving for alcohol and a slightly milder craving for women.
J.G. Farrell is best known for a trilogy of novels about the waning British Empire. The first one, Troubles (1970), is about an English army officer who goes to a seaside resort in Ireland in 1919 to be with the woman he plans to marry. He watches from a distance as Ireland fights for its independence and the British Empire begins to crumble on all fronts. The second novel was The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), a historical reconstruction of an Indian rebellion in 1857. Farrell spent a long time in India researching the novel. The Siege of Krishnapur won the 1973 Booker Prize, and at the awards ceremony, Farrell gave a speech in which he condemned the business activities of the sponsors of the prize he had just won. The final book of his trilogy, The Singapore Grip (1978), is about the British surrender of the colony of Singapore.
Farrell was 50,000 words into another historical novel about the British Empire when he drowned in 1979, at the age of 44, while fishing off the west coast of Ireland.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®