Tuesday

Apr. 26, 2011

Staff Sgt. Metz

by Dorianne Laux

Metz is alive for now, standing in line
at the airport Starbucks in his camo gear
and buzz cut, his beautiful new
camel-colored suede boots. His hands
are thick-veined. The good blood
still flows through, given an extra surge
when he slurps his latte, a fleck of foam
caught on his bottom lip.

I can see into the canal in his right ear,
a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head
toward the place of dreaming and fractions,
ponds of quiet thought.

In the sixties my brother left for Vietnam,
a war no one understood, and I hated him for it.
When my boyfriend was drafted I made a vow
to write a letter every day, and then broke it.
I was a girl torn between love and the idea of love.
I burned their letters in the metal trash bin
behind the broken fence. It was the summer of love
and I wore nothing under my cotton vest,
my Mexican skirt.

I see Metz later, outside baggage claim,
hunched over a cigarette, mumbling
into his cell phone. He's more real to me now
than my brother was to me then, his big eyes
darting from car to car as they pass.
I watch him breathe into his hands.

I don't believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
all the muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.

"Staff Sgt. Metz" by Dorianne Laux, from The Book of Men: Poems. © W.W. Norton, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1607, a group of about a hundred English settlers arrived at the Chesapeake Bay. They made landfall at a cape they named Cape Henry, after the Prince of Wales, and the fleet's chaplain, Robert Hunt, said a prayer and placed a cross at the site of their landing. The fleet was made up of three ships, 39 crew members, and 103 passengers — all men and boys; the women wouldn't come along until a year and a half later. The expedition was driven by entrepreneurial motives: the Virginia Company of London hoped to reap the bounty of the New World.

Upon arrival, Captain Christopher Newport opened the sealed orders from the Virginia Company, only to find that Captain John Smith, a man who had been charged with mutiny on the voyage and who was scheduled to be hanged, had been named to the Governing Council. The orders also directed the settlers to choose an inland site for their colony, so the men got back on their ships and began exploring the bay, eventually making their way up the James River. A couple of weeks later, they landed on an island that seemed like a reasonable and easily defendable location. They unloaded the ships and broke ground on their new settlement, which they named Jamestown in honor of their king, James I.

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open": Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating." He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.

Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital, and teaching elementary school. He also considered careers in psychiatry and architecture — going so far as to design and build a house for his sister, which she never liked very much.

Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote, "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." And, "Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination."

Today is the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1914. He recalled of his childhood that there were no books in his home, and on Sundays his chief entertainment was listening to a neighbor's piano through the living room window. He was also a great admirer of Charlie Chaplin and his ability to combine humor and sadness, and something of Chaplin's Little Tramp found its way into Malamud's own work, because he described his characters as "simple people struggling to make their lives better in a world of bad luck." Though he wrote for several years in his spare time, it wasn't until World War II and the Holocaust that he first believed he had something to say as a Jewish writer. "The suffering of the Jews is a distinct thing for me," he explained. "Somebody has to cry — even if it's a writer, twenty years later."

His first novel is his most famous: The Natural, published in 1952, is a baseball fable and a reviewer for The New York Times praised the book, writing, "If the author does not come from the ranks of baseball reporters, at least he hails from Brooklyn and there are those who feel that qualifies him ex officio." Like much of his other work, The Natural is an allegory and a morality play. Unlike much of his other work, however, there are no Jewish characters. And in 1984, after Barry Levinson made it into a film starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, Malamud expressed gratitude that he was being, as he put it, "recognized once more as an American writer" rather than a Jewish writer who was frequently lumped together with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. "Jewishness is important to me," he said, "but I don't consider myself only a Jewish writer. I have interests beyond that, and I feel I'm writing for all men."

It was 25 years ago today that the Chernobyl Disaster, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, occurred in Ukraine. During a systems test, the plant experienced a series of power surges, which led to an explosion in the core of one of its reactors, and a fire that burned for 10 days. Radioactive material 400 times greater than the amount released at Hiroshima shot into the atmosphere and blanketed the surrounding countryside. The public was not informed of the disaster until three days later, and only then because the radiation had traveled almost 700 miles to Sweden, triggering alarms at a nuclear power plant there. The Soviet government was forced to admit that a disaster had occurred. The nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated. The residents, believing that the evacuation would only last three days, left all their personal belongings behind, and most of them have never returned, although some elderly Ukrainians have defied the Exclusion Zone to return to their homes in spite of the high radiation levels.

From the archives:

On this day in 1922, writer E.B. White (books by this author) wrote to his mother from Columbus, Ohio. He was on a road trip with a friend, and he was writing to congratulate his parents on their wedding anniversary. He said: "Spring has arrived in Ohio. This is a flat state where red pigs graze in bright green fields and where farms are neat and prosperous — not like New York farms. We roll along through dozens of villages and cities whose names we never heard. [...] Toward evening the country scenes become idyllic — the sort of thing you have seen in the moving pictures and never quite believed in. Sheep come drifting up long green lawns where poplars throw interminable shadows, come drifting up and stand like statues beneath white plum blossoms, while far down the land and off in the fields a little Ford tractor moves like a snail across the furrows. Lilacs are in full bloom and the lavender ironwood blossoms are coloring all the roads."

It's the birthday of Scottish philosopher David Hume (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1711, widely regarded as the most important philosopher to write in the English language. While working as a librarian, he wrote the six-volume History of England (1762), which became a best-seller and gave him the financial independence to write and revise his philosophical treatises. He wrote A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). He was a strict skeptic, and questioned all knowledge derived from the senses. His influence on philosophical thought has been enormous.

Nineteenth-century British philosopher James Hutchison Stirling said, "Hume is our politics, Hume is our trade, Hume is our philosophy, Hume is our religion." And Immanuel Kant said, "Hume awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers."

Hume wrote, "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous."

It's the birthday of architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822. He is known as the founder of American landscape architecture and designer of New York's Central Park.

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

 









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