Dec. 22, 2013

The Video

by Fleur Adcock

When Laura was born, Ceri watched.
They all gathered around Mum's bed —
Dad and the midwife and Mum's sister
and Ceri. "Move over a bit," Dad said —
he was trying to focus the camcorder
on Mum's legs and the baby's head.

After she had a little sister,
and Mum had gone back to being thin,
and was twice as busy, Ceri played
the video again and again.
She watched Laura come out, and then,
in reverse, she made her go back in.

"The Video" by Fleur Adcock, from Collected Poems 1960-2000. © Bloodaxe Ltd, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Lincoln Tunnel opened to traffic on this date in 1937, connecting midtown Manhattan with Weehawken, New Jersey. The New Deal's Public Works Administration funded the $85 million project. First proposed in 1930, construction of the tunnel took three and a half years. It was originally to be named the Midtown Vehicular Tunnel, but people thought it should have a more grandiose name, like the George Washington Bridge. They named it after the 16th president instead.

The tunnel is a mile and a half long, and it runs under the Hudson River. Construction was slow and treacherous. The "sandhogs," as the workers were known, had to go through a series of airlocks to gradually adjust to the increase in pressure. They had to work quickly because they could only spend brief periods in the high-pressure conditions under the river. The constant rock drills and occasional dynamite explosions were deafening. But the tunnel was completed without a single fatality, largely because sandhogs were limited to one hour of work per day — 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon — with five hours of rest in between.

The lining consists of a series of huge iron rings weighing 21 tons each; they had to be assembled in place, down inside the tunnel. There was a shield bracing the leading edge of the tunnel like the hull of a ship, and this was pushed gradually forward while the rings were assembled and concrete was poured to seal the tunnel walls. One crew worked from the New Jersey side, and another worked from the New York side; they finally met in the middle in August 1935. State officials hailed the tunnel as a link of friendship between New York and New Jersey, and a fine example of governmental cooperation.

On this date in 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman presented Abraham Lincoln with a dramatic Christmas gift: the city of Savannah. Savannah was one of the last port cities still within Confederate control. Sherman had captured Atlanta the previous September. In November, he and his army — 60,000 strong — set fire to Atlanta and departed, leaving their supply lines behind. Nothing was heard from them for about six weeks as they marched toward the coast, and Lincoln was beginning to worry. Sherman's army finally ended its 300-mile "march to the sea" outside Savannah on December 10. Three days later, they had captured Fort McAllister. Confederate troops escaped on December 21 and the city fell to Sherman. He sent a telegram back to Washington the next day with the following message: "I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton." Lincoln thanked him via return telegram a few days later, saying that he had been anxious but "feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that 'nothing risked, nothing gained,' I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours."

Sherman's march to the sea wasn't just an economic campaign, but a psychological one; Sherman's men only fought one battle during its six-week march, but they burned farms, ruined food stores, destroyed railroad tracks, and gave no quarter. It devastated Southern morale. After they left Savannah, Sherman and his men carried out the same tactics as they marched through South Carolina. Sherman explained his strategy by saying that the Union soldiers were "not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people." He wanted to "make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war."

It's the birthday of poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth (books by this author), born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). When he was 10, his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given just two months to live; he went along with her to buy her coffin, and was with her when she died. Three years later, his father died. The boy grew up in a tough part of Chicago, but got to meet Clarence Darrow, Sherwood Anderson, Countee Cullen, Carl Sandburg, and Langston Hughes. There was a tea room where they used to read and talk about poetry and where jazz was played. While still in his teens, he fell in love with a woman who was 10 years his senior, and followed her east to Greenwich Village. He taught himself Greek, read Plato and other classics, began translating Sappho — and then, with a Japanese primer, translated Oriental poetry. Then he traveled west, out to San Francisco. An early backer of the Beat movement, he wrote poems that at first were heavily influenced by Surrealism but later grew shorter and tighter in form. He translated from Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Latin, and Spanish; his own books include The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1949), In Defense of the Earth (1956), With Eye and Ear (1970), and Saucy Limericks & Christmas Cheer (1980).

Kenneth Rexroth said: "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde. ... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life."

It was on this day in 1964 that comedian Lenny Bruce was sentenced to four months in jail after the longest and costliest obscenity trial in history. It went on for six months, and it ended Bruce's career. He became obsessed with it, and he began to read court transcripts to his audiences. He died in 1966 of a heroin overdose, still waiting to hear an appeal of his case. It wasn't until 2003 that Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon.

It's the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany (1858). Puccini's four greatest operas all begin with a love story, focus on the female lead, and end tragically. They are La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot, which was left incomplete at Puccini's death in 1924.

And it's the birthday of Thomas Higginson, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1823), whom we know today as the publisher of Emily Dickinson's poetry. He received a letter from Dickinson in the spring of 1862 with four of her poems asking, "Mr. Higginson ... Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" He read the poems, but he did not know what to make of them. After her death, he helped edit and publish her poetry, rewriting many of her verses, and making them more acceptable for society. Later, scholars would spend years undoing his changes.

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