Friday

Jul. 13, 2012

Gravity

by Kim Addonizio

Carrying my daughter to bed
I remember how light she once was,
no more than a husk in my arms.
There was a time I could not put her down,
so frantic was her crying if I tried
to pry her from me, so I held her
for hours at night, walking up and down the hall,
willing her to fall asleep. She'd grow quiet,
pressed against me, her small being alert
to each sound, the tension in my arms, she'd take
my nipple and gaze up at me,
blinking back fatigue she'd fight whatever terror
waited beyond my body in her dark crib. Now
that she's so heavy I stagger beneath her,
she slips easily from me, down
into her own dreaming. I stand over her bed,
fixed there like a second, dimmer star,
though the stars are not fixed: someone
once carried the weight of my life.

"Gravity" by Kim Addonizio, from The Philosopher's Club. © BOA Editions, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

There was a blackout in New York City on this date in 1977. Lightning struck three times that night, hitting Con Edison substations and shutting down the power grid. The city went dark at about 9:30 p.m. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports had to be shut down for eight hours, tunnels in and out of the city were closed, and thousands of people had to be evacuated from the subways.

There had been a similar blackout in 1965, and people had faced it with good humor, but in 1977, New York was in the middle of an economic crisis, and unemployment rates were high. There was also a serial killer, who called himself "Son of Sam," on the loose, and the city was in the grip of a brutal heat wave. It was the worst time for a catastrophic blackout; the city was a powder keg.

In the 25 hours that it took workers to fully restore power, more than 1,600 stores were looted, more than a thousand fires were set, and nearly 3,800 looters were arrested. Damage was later estimated at $300 million. Some neighborhoods in Brooklyn still haven't fully recovered, 35 years later.

Today is the birthday of the English poet John Clare (books by this author), born in Helpston, Northamptonshire, (1793) to a poor rural family. His father was a thresher, and his mother was a shepherd's daughter. Clare was small, probably due to malnutrition, and never grew taller than five feet. He did get some schooling, in between working on the family's farm, and at age 27, he published his first book: Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820). Despite his success, he felt that he didn't fit in with other poets of the day, like Byron, Keats, and Coleridge because they were educated and hadn't had to work. But he didn't fit in back home either because people were suspicious of his accomplishments and afraid that he would use their words in his poems.

In 1837, Clare entered High Beach Asylum. He had suffered from depression and heavy drinking for some time. During his stay there, he would quote other poets' works and claim he'd written them. When he was corrected, he would reply: "It's all the same. I'm John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly." He escaped after four years and walked home; five months later, he was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life and wrote many of his best poems, including his most famous, "I Am!," which begins:

I am — yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes —
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live — like vapours tossed

William Wordsworth (books by this author) wrote one of his best poems — commonly known as "Tintern Abbey" — on this date in 1798. The poem's given title was "Lines," with the lengthy subtitle "Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey on revisiting the banks of the Wye Valley during a tour, July 13, 1798." Wordsworth claimed he wrote the whole thing in his head, memorized it, and never changed a single one of its 1,200 words: "No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this. I began it upon leaving Tintern, after crossing the Wye, and concluded it just as I was entering Bristol in the evening, after a ramble of four or five days with my sister. Not a word of it was altered, and not any part of it was written down till I had reached Bristol."

Wordsworth had first visited the village of Tintern, which lies near the River Wye in Monmouthshire, Wales, five years earlier. In spite of its reference in the title, Wordsworth doesn't describe the abbey at all in the poem, but instead muses on his philosophy of nature, and how he himself has changed in the intervening years since his first visit.

The poem was rushed to the printer just in time for it to be included in Lyrical Ballads, his joint effort with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it marked a significant turning point in Wordsworth's style.

Today is the birthday of Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka (books by this author), born in Abeokuta, Nigeria (1934). He's the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature, which he was awarded in 1986. His works include A Dance of the Forests (1963), The Beatification of Area Boy (1996), and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems (1988). He bases much of his writing on the mythology of the Yoruba tribe, and his own spiritual background is a blend of his parents' Protestantism and traditional Yoruban religion.

Soyinka has been a professor at several British and American universities. He's said: "I think I have a teacher's genes in me. I love teaching. I enjoy that kind of relationship in which [...] both sides learn from each other." And he has long been a pro-democracy activist in his native Nigeria, protesting military dictatorships, and for this he has spent a lot of time in exile and in prison. In 1967, he was imprisoned for more than two years — most of that spent in solitary confinement. He still found a way to write, though, making his own ink and writing on toilet paper and cigarette packages. When he was asked why he kept protesting, Soyinka said: "My conviction simply is that power must always be defeated, that the struggle must always continue to defeat power. I don't go looking for fights. I'm really a very lazy person. I enjoy my peace and quiet. There's nothing I love better than just to sit quietly somewhere, you know, have a glass of wine, read a book, listen to music." But just a few months after that interview — and almost two decades after becoming a Nobel Prize laureate — he led more anti-government protests. He was tear-gassed and arrested, though soon released.

But in spite of his political activism, he doesn't believe all artists have any particular social or political responsibilities. "Those whose created mission is to release to the world their visions, their perspectives, their interpretations of reality in complete and continuous isolation — I believe that they contribute just as much to the community. So I demand nothing of other artists, musicians, and sculptors."

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

 









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