Aug. 24, 2014

Home Are the Sailors

by Samuel Hazo

Like those who sail away and then
   come back, we keep returning
   to a port we've never left.
A life we used to live
   await us there as shores await
   all sailors home from sea.
So much is differently the same.
And yet what is the present
   but a future that the past
   made possible?
                                  There is
   no older story.
                                  And what
   are we but random pilgrims
   stopped in progress to remember?
It now seems more like then,
   why care?
                         As long as home
   means where we most belong—
   for just that long—we're there.

"Home Are the Sailors" by Samuel Hazo, from And the Time Is. © Syracuse University Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the baptismal day of poet Robert Herrick (1591) (books by this author). He's the author of the lines, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying, / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying." They appear in his poem "To the Virgins, to make much of Time." He worked as a goldsmith, went to college, and left London for the English countryside, where he stayed for many years and wrote most of his poetry. He wrote short lyric poems and songs. He wrote about seducing women and taking advantage of your youth, but he never married and most of the women in his poems were probably imaginary. He also wrote religious poems. His poetry was distributed among friends and eventually reached people in higher places, making Herrick known throughout England. In 1648, he published Hesperides, which contained more than 1,000 poems.

On this date in 1349, 6,000 Jews died in the town of Mainz, Germany, after being accused of causing the plague known as the Black Death. The 14th century witnessed an infectious disease epidemic of apocalyptic proportions: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plagues wiped out an estimated 20 million people — 30 to 35 percent of Europe's population — between 1347 and 1350. Over a three-month period in 1349, 800 people died every day in Paris, 500 a day in Pisa, and 600 a day in Vienna. The plague would rage in a region for three to six months, and then seemingly depart on a whim; it struck like a tornado, without rhyme or reason, wiping out whole families save for the youngest member or the oldest, for example; or killing everyone on one side of the street but leaving the other side untouched. People began looking for reasons, and looked upon each other with fear and suspicion. The epidemic was blamed on a planetary alignment; an earthquake in Italy that had split the earth open, releasing noxious vapors; or the wrath of God. They also blamed the Jews, accusing them of poisoning the water and trying to destroy Christendom; beginning in 1348, fueled by confessions that were obtained through torture, villagers began dragging Jews from their homes and throwing them on bonfires. The Jewish community in Mainz mounted a resistance in 1349, killing about 200 Christians and setting fire to their own homes rather than be subject to torture.

We now know, of course, that the plague was caused by a bacillus, Yersinia pestis, which was spread through flea bites. The fleas came to Europe and North Africa by ship across the Black Sea, carried on the bodies of plague-infected rats from the central Asian steppes.

On this date in 1891, Thomas Edison filed patents for the first motion picture camera and viewer. He called the camera the Kinetograph, and dubbed the viewer the Kinetoscope. The camera contained a spool that held a 50-foot-long continuous roll of 35-millimeter film. The image was recorded by means of a revolving cylinder with a narrow slit that allowed light in to expose the film at regular intervals. Viewing these early movies followed a similar process: the viewer would look through a peephole and the cylinder would revolve, illuminating individual photographs in rapid succession. A perceptual phenomenon called "persistence of vision" tricks the brain into thinking you're seeing a seamless depiction of movement, when you're really looking at a series of still photographs.

It's the birthday of poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). He studied in Europe, moved back to Argentina, and got a job in a library. He worked his way up to be director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. He was able to do his work in just one hour every morning so he could spend the rest of his day wandering through the stacks. In a cruel twist, he also began losing his vision, and by 1955 he was completely blind. "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at once 800,000 books and darkness," he said.

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