Monday

Oct. 15, 2012

Tattoo

by Carl Dennis

If the body is the house of the soul,
What's wrong with a little home decoration
More permanent than the drapes in the parlor
Or the fabric on the dining-room chairs?

A forearm, say, adorned with a tropical flower
Or with a palm tree under a deep blue sky,
Suggesting the body is glad to recall
Its stay in Eden, whether or not the soul
Regards that episode as relevant now.

Or consider the young waitress
Who served you lunch just an hour ago,
How her sleeveless blouse revealed
A small heart on her shoulder
Inscribed with two names, Dave and Gretchen,
Under a sprig of lilac.

No need to assume she's failed to imagine a time
When a boyfriend more congenial
Wakes up beside her only to be reminded
There was once a Dave who was all she wanted.

Could be she wants to send a reminder
To the Gretchen she may become
Not to forget the girl who believed
That holding on was a project worthy
Of all the attention that she could muster,
As much a challenge as letting go.

"Tattoo" by Carl Dennis from Callings. © Penguin Poets, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the poet Virgil (books by this author), born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.), who became famous for writing poems about the beauty and simplicity of farm life at a time when Rome was being torn apart by civil wars. When those wars were finally over, the government asked Virgil to write a poem that would persuade Romans who had left the countryside to return home and become farmers again. Virgil wrote The Georgics, a kind of poetic farming manual about grain production, trees, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The poems provided instruction, but they were also entertaining and full of beautiful descriptions of nature.

The emperor Augustus was impressed with Virgil's work, and provided him a generous stipend to live on for the rest of his life, which he spent writing his epic poem The Aeneid, about the soldier Aeneas, traveling home from the Trojan war to found a new city that would become Rome. Virgil had been working on it for 11 years when he took a trip to Greece for some final research, caught a fever, and died before he could finish. His final request was that the incomplete poem be burned, but Augustus ordered it preserved, and it became the basis of standard curriculum in Roman schools. It has now been in print for more than 2,000 years.

It was on this day in 1764 that Edward Gibbon (books by this author) thought up the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His six-volume work, published between the years 1776 and 1788, covered more than a thousand years of Roman history, from 180 A.D. to the fall of Constantinople.

Gibbon wrote in his autobiography: "It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind. After Rome has kindled and satisfied the enthusiasm of the Classic pilgrim, his curiosity for all meaner objects insensibly subsides."

Gibbon became known as "the first modern historian." He tried to write objectively, and in departure from his predecessors, he relied heavily on primary source documents rather than on secondary sources such as official Church histories. He made extensive — and eccentric — use of footnotes.

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (books by this author), born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844). He was a philosopher who loved literature, and he experimented with different literary styles to express his philosophy. Some of his books are long lists of aphorisms, while others are written almost like novels or poetry. His most famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), describes a prophet who comes down from the mountains to teach people about the coming of a new kind of superman, but the people he speaks to only ridicule and laugh at him.

He's perhaps best known for claiming that "God is dead," but most people forget that he actually said, "God is dead ... and we have killed him!" He thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to accept that tragedy and move on. He wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago. Much of his philosophy is about how people might live in a world without God and without absolute morality. At the time of his death on August 25, 1900, almost no one had heard of him, but after his work was republished, it had a huge impact on the philosophers of the 20th century.

He said: "[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once."

It's the birthday of English novelist Sir P(elham) G(renville) Wodehouse (books by this author), born in Guildford, England (1881). He was one of the most popular writers of the first half of the 20th century. His father worked as a magistrate in Hong Kong, and because his mother traveled back and forth between England and Hong Kong, he was raised mostly by a series of aunts. While he was in high school, he found out that his father had gone bankrupt and wouldn't be able to pay for college. He got a job as a bank clerk and started publishing humorous stories and poetry on the side. He said, "[My] total inability to grasp what was going on [at the bank] made me something of a legend." He eventually switched to journalism, and it was as a journalist that he first traveled to the United States to cover a boxing match. He fell in love with America. He said, "Being there was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying." He moved to Greenwich Village in 1909 and began to publish the stories that made him famous in the Saturday Evening Post. From America, he wrote about an imaginary, cartoonish England, full of extremely polite but brain-dead aristocrats, and his work was wildly popular in the years leading up to the decline of the British Empire. He is best known for books such as My Man Jeeves (1919); Carry On, Jeeves (1927); Thank You, Jeeves (1934); and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) — books about a servant named Jeeves who is constantly saving his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all kinds of absurd situations.

Wodehouse was an extremely shy man. When his wife rented them an apartment in New York, he made her promise to get one on the first floor, because he never knew what to say to the man who ran the elevator. People who knew him said that he was incredibly dull, that he was never funny in person and that he didn't seem to have any emotions. He said: "I haven't got any violent feelings about anything. I just love writing." Over the course of his life, he wrote almost a hundred books of fiction, wrote for 16 plays, and composed lyrics for 28 musicals. When asked about his technique for writing, he said, "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit."

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