Jul. 29, 2013
I watched a snake once, swallow a rabbit.
Fourth grade, the reptile zoo
the rabbit stiff, nose in, bits of litter stuck to its fur,
its head clenched in the wide
jaws of the snake, the snake
sucking t down its long throat.
All throat that snake—I couldn't tell
where the throat ended, the body
began. I remember the glass
case, the way that snake
took its time (all the girls, groaning, shrieking
but weren't we amazed, fascinated,
saying we couldn't look, but looking, weren't we
held there, weren't we
imagining—what were we imagining?)
Mrs. Peterson urged us to move on girls,
but we couldn't move. It was like
watching a fern unfurl, a minute
hand move across a clock. I didn't know why
the snake didn't choke, the rabbit never
moved, how the jaws kept opening
wider, sucking it down, just so
I am taking this in, slowly,
taking it into my body:
this grief. How slow
the body is to realize.
You are never coming back.
It's the birthday of Chester Himes (books by this author), born in Jefferson City, Missouri (1909). Himes was serving a 20-year sentence for grand larceny when he published his first short stories in Esquire. They brought him only temporary fame; he was still forced to work as a ditchdigger when he was released. He published If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945 to warm reviews, but the book didn't sell well. His second novel, Lonely Crusade, received universally bad reviews. In despair, Himes followed other black expatriates to Paris. There he met an editor from the French publishing house Gallimard. They had started a series of dark detective novels, and the editor told Himes: "Get an idea, start with action, somebody does something — man reaches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor [...] We don't give a damn who's thinking what — only what they're doing [...] Don't worry about it making sense. That's for the end. Give me 220 typed pages."
Vincent van Gogh died on this date in 1890. He had shot himself in the chest in a wheat field two days before, and managed to make it home to his own bed. The doctor decided not to remove the bullet, and his brother Theo was sent for. He rushed from Paris to his brother's bedside and reported that van Gogh's last words were "The sadness will go on forever."
It's the birthday of poet Stanley Kunitz (1905) (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He published his first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, in 1930. His 1971 volume The Testing-Tree marked a shift in his work, from his early, formal style to one that was looser, more personal, and written in everyday language. He explained the shift in Publishers Weekly: "I think that as a young poet I looked for what Keats called 'a fine excess,' but as an old poet I look for spareness and rigor and a world of compassion."
He was named poet laureate in 2000, at the age of 95. He was still publishing and promoting poetry. The Wild Braid: a Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (2005) is a collection of essays and conversations about his two loves, poetry and gardening, and was released on his 100th birthday. He died the following spring.
Today is the birthday of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (1953). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, but he grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was a professor at the University of Michigan. He studied film and design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and his first major documentary film was Brooklyn Bridge in 1981.
It's his 11-hour television miniseries The Civil War (1990) that made his name. Because he used so many still photographs from the period, he came up with the idea to give a sense of movement by panning over the photos, or zooming slowly in on a particular detail. The technique has come to be known as "the Burns effect." He's since produced lengthy documentaries on jazz (2001), World War II (2007), the National Parks (2009), two series about baseball (1994 and 2010), and Prohibition (2011).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®