Oct. 31, 2013

October nor'easter

by Marge Piercy

Leaves rip from the trees
still green as rain scuds
off the ocean in broad grey
scimitars of water hard
as granite pebbles flung
in my face.

Sometimes my days are torn
from the calendar,
hardly touched and gone,
like leaves too fresh
still to fall littering
sodden on the bricks.

But I have had them—
torrents of days. Who
am I to complain they
shorten? I used them
hard, wore them out
and down, grabbed

at what chance offered.
If I stand stripped
and bare, my bones
still shine like opals
where love rubbed sweetly,
hard, against them.

"October nor'easter" by Marge Piercy, from The Crooked Inheritance. © Knopf, 2006. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

Today is Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, the time of the wandering dead. It's also a time for the young and the not-so-young to dress in outlandish attire and go door to door begging for candy.

If you're looking for a scary story to read instead, there's no shortage of ghoulish material to choose from. Nearly anything by Poe (books by this author) or H.P. Lovecraft (books by this author) will fit the bill. Washington Irving (books by this author), in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819), gives us the tale of a scarecrowish and superstitious schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, whose very name conjures the image of someone leggy, lanky, and loose-jointed. Crane is chased through the midnight roads of Sleepy Hollow by the ghost of a Hessian soldier; not only is he a ghost, but he's also missing his head, which was blown off by a cannonball.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author) was always interested in sin and redemption, good and evil, truth and hypocrisy — in part due to the fact that his great-great-grandfather was one of the hanging judges in the Salem witch trials of 1692. His story Young Goodman Brown (1835) is set in Salem during the trials; his protagonist, a young Puritan newlywed, sets out at sunset on an errand that takes him through the woods, against the wishes of his bride, Faith. "The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward, with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil," Hawthorne writes. Along the way, Brown meets a mysterious man who resembles him, and witnesses Faith and the rest of his neighbors — whom he had thought to be righteous Christians — engaged in a witches' sabbath. He resists and the scene vanishes; the next day, his wife and neighbors behave as they always have, but his sense of community has vanished, and he lives in fear and suspicion of them to the end of his days. The story ends, "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."

Mark Twain (books by this author) wrote a quirky tale about the specter of a giant. A Ghost Story was published in 1870, and begins, "I took a large room, far up Broadway, in a huge old building whose upper stories had been wholly unoccupied for years, until I came. The place had long been given up to dust and cobwebs, to solitude and silence. I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life a superstitious dread came over me; and as I turned a dark angle of the stairway and an invisible cobweb swung its lazy woof in my face and clung there, I shuddered as one who had encountered a phantom." The narrator encounters the spirit of the Cardiff Giant, one of the most famous hoaxes in American history. In 1868, a New York tobacconist by the name of George Hull ordered a block of gypsum carved into the likeness of a 10-foot man, and he had it buried on his brother-in-law's farm near Cardiff, New York. Workmen discovered this petrified giant about a year later, when the farmer hired them to dig a well. Hull and his partner in deception made a pretty penny off of exhibiting the Cardiff Giant, and P.T. Barnum offered them $60,000 for it. When they turned Barnum down, he had a plaster replica made, and claimed his was the real giant, and the Cardiff Giant was the fake. In Twain's story, the ghost demands to be reburied, and is discouraged to find that he has been haunting Barnum's fake all along.

The Lincoln Highway was dedicated on this date in 1913. It was the first automobile road to traverse the entire continental United States. The man behind the plan was Carl Fisher; no stranger to automobile-friendly surfaces, he had recently enjoyed great acclaim as a result of his Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosted the new Indianapolis 500 race on its brick-paved track. He envisioned a gravel road that would run from coast to coast, from California to New York. He called it the Coast-to-Coast Rock Highway, and the price tag was reasonable even by 1912 standards: $10 million. Fisher planned to fund his project by soliciting contributions from automakers, but Henry Ford refused to get on board. He believed that the people should pay for the public roads, and the public would never get used to the idea of paying for roads if there was a hint that the business community would do it for them. It was Henry Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Company, who came up with the idea of calling it the Lincoln Highway and asking Congress for the money. Formally dedicated in 1913, and running from New York City's Times Square to San Francisco's Lincoln Park, it was the first national memorial to Abraham Lincoln, predating Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial by nine years.

Today is the birthday of John Keats (books by this author), who was born in London in 1795. His father, a livery-stable manager, died when Keats was eight years old. The boy didn't receive much formal education, but he discovered literature as a teenager, becoming first a voracious reader and then an aspiring poet. In 1817, he devoted himself to poetry. In 1818, he tended to his brother, who was dying of tuberculosis; Keats contracted the disease himself, and became increasingly ill in 1819, although he produced poetry of remarkable quality during that year, some of the best poetry of the Romantic movement. Keats died in Rome early in 1821, at the age of 25. He had wanted his gravestone to read simply, "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water," but his two closest friends, Joseph Severn and Charles Brown, took the opportunity to lash out at some of the poet's critics. They added the following to his marker: "This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone."

It was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther (books by this author) posted his 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther was a monk who disagreed with the Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences, which forgave the punishment for sins. Luther thought that God offered forgiveness freely without having to pay for it, and he wanted to reform the Catholic Church. He posted the theses as points to be argued in a public debate. He had no intention of creating a new branch of the Church, but that is what he did, more or less. He set in motion a huge rift within the Church, which eventually led to the Reformation.

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