Jan. 10, 2013

Dark Charms

by Dorianne Laux

Eventually the future shows up everywhere:
those burly summers and unslept nights in deep
lines and dark splotches, thinning skin.
Here's the corner store grown to a condo,
the bike reduced to one spinning wheel,
the ghost of a dog that used to be, her trail
no longer trodden, just a dip in the weeds.
The clear water we drank as thirsty children
still runs through our veins. Stars we saw then
we still see now, only fewer, dimmer, less often.
The old tunes play and continue to move us
in spite of our learning, the wraith of romance,
lost innocence, literature, the death of the poets.
We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the keys to lost names.

"Dark Charms" by Dorianne Laux, from The Book of Men. © Norton, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet Dorianne Laux (books by this author), born on this day in 1952 in Augusta, Maine. She graduated from high school, and she liked writing poems and took some classes at the local college, but she was also a single mom and worked various odd jobs — in a gas station, a sanatorium, a donut shop, and as a maid — so she didn't have much time to write.

She was living in California, working at a restaurant, and her therapist gave her the address of a bookstore and told her she should go there and listen to poets read their work. So she did, and became friends with them, and started writing all the time, and went on to write several books of poetry and win awards. Her books include Facts About the Moon (2005), Superman: The Chapbook (2008), and The Book of Men: Poems (2012), which came out last summer.

She says: "Every poem I write falls short in some important way. But I go on trying to write the one that won't. "

It's the birthday of the poet Philip Levine (books by this author), born in Detroit in 1928. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants, and as a young boy, he sat around listening to his parents and their friends discuss left-wing politics. It was the Great Depression, and he started to think that the real heroes might be the ordinary hardworking people he saw all around him in Detroit. He said, "As a boy of 14, I took long walks and talked to the moon and stars, and night after night I would reshape and polish these talks." But he didn't actually start writing until years later. He was working at auto manufacturing plants, and he decided that he needed to write about the men he worked with. He said: "In terms of the literature of the United States, they weren't being heard. Nobody was speaking for them. And as young people will, you know, I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them and that's what my life would be. And sure enough I've gone and done it."

Eventually, Levine went on to a successful career in poetry, and he's known for his extraordinary work ethic, which he learned working in the auto factories. His books include The Names of the Lost (1975), What Work Is (1991), The Simple Truth (1994), and most recently, News of the World (2009).

Philip Levine said, "I think poetry will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it's the home of the extraordinary, the only home."

It was on this day in 1776 that an anonymous pamphlet was published, 46 pages long, in Philadelphia, a pamphlet called Common Sense. It explained why the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain. It was easy to understand, it was popular, and it rallied a lot of people for the revolutionary cause who had not been involved before they read it.

Everyone wanted to figure out who the author was. Many people thought it was Benjamin Franklin, or John Adams. But in fact, it was Thomas Paine (books by this author), who had been born and raised in England, and had come to America only about a year before. He had lost his job in England, his marriage had fallen apart, he wanted a new life.

But he looked around him, became convinced that the colonies needed total independence from Britain, and wrote about it in the paper — so he lost that job too. He spent several months traveling around Pennsylvania, going to taverns and talking to ordinary people about American independence. Inspired by these conversations, he wrote down an argument for independence. He was thinking of calling it Plain Truth, but a friend suggested he change it to Common Sense. He wrote in a very plain style, trying to write as if it were a sermon, something anybody could understand. He said, "As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet."

Common Sense sold 500,000 copies in its first year after publication, which is quite something, considering that there were only about two and a half million people living in all of the 13 colonies at that time. Thomas Paine donated all the royalties to George Washington's Continental Army.

He wrote, "Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil."

It's the birthday of historian Stephen E. Ambrose (books by this author), born in Decatur, Illinois (1936). He was the son of a small-town doctor, and he became a football star at the University of Wisconsin, where he played both offense and defense and often spent the entire 60-minute game on the field. If he had been a little bigger, he would have considered turning pro. But after taking a class with a popular history professor on campus, he decided to devote his life to history.

He was 28 years old when a small university press published his first book, Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff (1962), a biography of General Henry Halleck. One day, he got a phone call from the former President Dwight Eisenhower, who had read his book on Halleck and liked it so much that he wanted Ambrose to be his own biographer. Ambrose wrote several books about Eisenhower, including The Supreme Commander (1970) and Eisenhower: The President (1984), and those books helped him make the leap from academic to popular historian.

He went on to write many best-selling books about American history, including Band of Brothers (1992) and Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996). He participated in the more than 1,400 interviews of World War II veterans, collecting oral histories of the war, and he drew upon those interviews to write one of his most popular books, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994). He was also the founder and director of the National D-Day Museum, which opened in New Orleans in 2000. He died in 2002.

Ambrose said: "The number one secret of being a successful writer is this: Marry an English major."

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




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