Aug. 11, 2013

Sonnet after Wyatt

by Clive James

The final naked stalking feet have fled.
My chamber, even when the summer sun
Streams in to light my books, is dark instead:
Those shining walkers have all cut and run.
Out of the shower, not wearing very much,
Printing the air with pleasure for my eyes,
As sweet to look at as they were to touch,
They stepped like firebrands in a friendly guise,
Brighter than day. The voids they left behind
Ache at the point that most intensely felt
Their prettiness, where vision floods the mind
With the same heat that first made the heart melt.
So I, that now they flee but once they sought,
Pine for the sight and perish at the thought.

"Sonnet after Wyatt" by Clive James, from Opal Sunset. © Norton, 2008. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of playwright Fernando Arrabal (books by this author), born in Melilla, Spanish Morocco (1932). He became known writing plays of "theater of the absurd" style, and also for ones of an abstract style he developed and called "panic art" — the most famous example of which is his play The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria (1967), in which the characters on stage exchange personalities as the performance progresses.

He's written more than 60 plays, and his works have been performed in more than 20 languages. He said, "I identify with all my characters. I see myself as a reflection. My plays exalt me like the exaltation of orgasm. I do not write for shock, but what I write is an imitation of nature and of the senses. I write plays in order to live more intensely.”

The first civilian prisoners began arriving at Alcatraz on this date in 1934. The island, which lies in the San Francisco Bay, had been under the military's control since 1850, when President Millard Fillmore signed an executive order to that effect. A fortress was built on the island, and a lighthouse — the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast. Before the decade was out, the fortress was serving as a military prison. The cold, rough water of the Bay made it virtually impossible for prisoners to escape. During its stint as a military prison, Alcatraz housed Confederate sympathizers, Native Americans, and enemy combatants during the Spanish-American War.

In 1933, the Justice Department took control of Alcatraz to turn it into a federal penitentiary. They wanted a place to lock up dangerous criminals, especially those who might be likely to escape. The prisoners were housed in individual cells, and there was one guard for every three convicts. It was a maximum-security, minimum-privilege prison; cons had very few basic rights, and anything extra had to be earned through good behavior.

Alcatraz closed its doors in 1963, mainly for financial reasons. The buildings, subjected to the salt spray and high winds, were in constant need of repair. And because all the food and supplies had to be brought in by boat, day-to-day operations were much more expensive than they were at other prisons. In its 30 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz housed more than 1,500 prisoners, and not one ever managed to escape, although some made it as far as the water, and five of them are still considered "missing and presumed drowned."

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