Sep. 30, 2014

Still Morning

by W. S. Merwin

It appears now that there is only one
age and it knows
nothing of age as the flying birds know
nothing of the air they are flying through
or of the day that bears them up
through themselves
and I am a child before there are words
arms are holding me up in a shadow
voices murmur in a shadow
as I watch one patch of sunlight moving
across the green carpet
in a building
gone long ago and all the voices
silent and each word they said in that time
silent now
while I go on seeing that patch of sunlight

"Still Morning" by W.S. Merwin, from Collected Poems: 1996-2011. © Library of America, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of American writer Truman Capote (books by this author), born in New Orleans (1924). When he was 17, he dropped out of school and got a job as an errand boy in the art department at The New Yorker magazine. He published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), when he was just 24 years old. But after writing a few more novels, Capote said, "I want to live more in the world that other people live in." And so he decided to try writing journalism, and he published In Cold Blood in 1966.

It's the birthday of writer and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel (books by this author), born in a small village in Transylvania (1928). He grew up in a Hasidic community and learned to love reading by studying the Pentateuch and other sacred texts. When he was 15, he and his family were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother, sister, and father were all killed before World War II was over.

Wiesel survived the camp, but he couldn't write about his experiences for 10 years. Finally, a mentor, François Mauriac, persuaded Wiesel to write about the war. He wrote a 900-page memoir, which he condensed into the 127-page book called Night (1955). Night has become one of the most widely read books about the Holocaust. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in literature for his writing and teaching.

It was on this day in 1935 that the Hoover Dam was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in Boulder City, Nevada. Roosevelt traveled to Nevada by train from Washington, D.C., for the dedication. He traveled with his wife, Eleanor; the secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, and an entourage of reporters. He left Washington on September 26th for the 15,000-mile trip that would take him through the Midwest, to Nevada for the dedication of the dam, to California, then on a boat for some deep-sea fishing off the Pacific coast of Mexico, and finally a cruise home through the Panama Canal and the Caribbean.

Roosevelt got off the train in St. Louis, and on the 28th, he stopped in Fremont, Nebraska, to give an "Address on Agriculture." He used the opportunity to thank farmers for their hard work, and for their patience and courage through the tough years of the Depression. He also championed his Agricultural Adjustment Act, a New Deal program that paid farmers to kill off excess livestock and not to plant some of their fields — it was an attempt to eliminate surplus products and raise their value. He said: "I like to think that never again will this nation let its agriculture fall back into decay, and that, instead, the farmers of America will always be able to guard the principles of liberty and democracy for which their farmer ancestors fought."

He traveled through Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Salt Lake City. The train arrived in Las Vegas at 3 a.m. on September 30th and arrived in Boulder City about half an hour later. Boulder City, located 33 miles outside of Las Vegas, was a town built entirely to house the dam workers and their families — it had been nothing but empty desert in 1928 when Congress authorized the construction of the dam. The government had imagined that Boulder City would be populated by single men, but after the Depression, family men needed jobs, too. Boulder City became a city of families, with schools, churches, a movie theater, a department store, and a baseball field. Meat was shipped in from Reno in 20,000 pound lots, and the food contractor for the city bought a farm where 200 cows supplied milk, cream, and butter. During the height of construction on the dam, Boulder City had the highest population in Nevada.

Everyone was excited about the president's visit. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce presented him with a 10-gallon hat, and the Elks made him a gold key to the city. He woke up on the train at 7 a.m., had breakfast with Eleanor, and then took a tour of Boulder City, stopping to visit some schoolkids. He crossed over to the Arizona side, where he spent too long enjoying the view of the beautiful water and musing about whether a fish hatchery would do well there, and had to be hurried back to Nevada by his aides in order to give his speech, since it was going to be broadcast live on radio.

It was 102 degrees on the morning of Roosevelt's dedication speech, but about 12,000 people came out to listen, with hundreds of cars lining the highway near Boulder City. Some listened to the speech on speakers from high above the dam or from the Arizona side. Construction for the dam had begun under President Herbert Hoover. When it was first discussed, the dam was referred to as the "Boulder Canyon Project" or "Boulder Dam." In 1930, Hoover's Secretary of the Interior christened it "Hoover Dam." Two years later, Roosevelt won the election, and so in his speech he referred to it solely as "Boulder Dam."

Roosevelt began his speech: "This morning I came, I saw and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind."

After his speech, Roosevelt had lunch with government officials in the train, while Eleanor and the Secretary of the Interior ate in the Boulder City mess hall with the construction workers.

It's the birthday of the poet W.S. Merwin (books by this author), born in New York City on this day in 1927 and raised in Union City, New Jersey, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. He won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for The Shadow of Sirius (published in 2008). He also won the 2005 National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems.

He started writing poems when he was four or five years old, he said — at first, they were mostly hymns to give to his father, a Presbyterian minister. He studied literature and Romance languages at Princeton, gained the admiring attention of W.H. Auden, and published his first book of poems, A Mask for Janus, the year he turned 25.

He wrote plays for the Poet's Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, edited poetry for The Nation, and translated a lot of other people's poetry. He has translated verse from French and Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and Latin, and also from Yiddish and Japanese and Sanskrit. He translated Dante's Purgatorio and works by Pablo Neruda.

He lives in Hawaii on the lip of a dormant volcano in Maui, on what used to be a pineapple plantation. He's devoted to cultivating endangered palm trees and reforesting his land with native Hawaiian plants. He's deeply interested in Buddhism.

His books of poems include The Drunk in the Furnace (1960), Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment (1973), Travels (1993), The Vixen (1996), and The Moon Before Morning (2014).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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