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Poem: "Biblical Also-Rans," by Charles Harper Webb from Liver (University of Wisconsin Press).

Biblical Also-Rans

Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, Carmi,
Jemuel, Ohad, Zohar, Shuni:
one Genesis mention's all you got.

Ziphion, Muppim, Arodi: lost
in a list even the most devout skip over
like small towns on the road to L.A.

How tall were you, Shillim?
What was your favorite color, Ard?
Did you love your wife, Iob?

Not even her name survives.
Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain-
these are the stars crowds surge to see.

Each hour thousands of Josephs,
Jacobs, Benjamins are born.
How many Oholibamahs? How many

Mizzahs draw first breath today?
Gatam, Kenaz, Reuel? Sidemen
in the band. Waiters who bring

the Perignon and disappear.
Yet they loved dawn's garnet light
as much as Moses did. They drank

wine with as much delight.
I thought my life would line me up
with Samuel, Isaac, Joshua.

Instead I stand with Basemath, Hoglah,
Ammihud. Theirs are the names
I honor; theirs, the deaths I feel,

their children's tears loud as any
on the corpse of Abraham, their smiles
as missed, the earth as desolate

without them: Pebbles on a hill.
Crumbs carried off by ants.
Jeush. Dishan. Nahath. Shammah.

It's the birthday of British poet and critic D.J. Enright, born in Leamington, Warwickshire, England (1920). He translated Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and edited a number of anthologies, including the Oxford Book of Death. Enright wrote about Japan, "The Japanese language is such that by the time you know it sufficiently well for your knowledge to make any vital difference, it is probable that you will be too enervated…to write about the Japanese people. You may not even notice them anymore."

It's the birthday of the physicist and mathematician Joseph Bertrand, born in Paris, France (1822). Bertrand published important work on probability, theories of curves and surfaces, and thermodynamics, and he translated some of the work of the German mathematician Gauss into French. He was the first to conjecture that between every whole number greater than three and twice that number, there would be at least one prime number-but he couldn't come up with a proof.

It's the birthday of the writer Louise d'Epinay, born in Valenciennes, France (1726). She wrote several books about education, as well as an autobiographical novel, but she is remembered now for the brilliant gatherings she held in her Paris salon. The young Mozart performed there, and Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot were regular visitors.

It's the birthday of Italian poet Torquato Tasso, born in Sorrento in 1544. He won patronage at the court of the Cardinal d'Este in Ferrara, where he started work on an epic poem about the First Crusade, which he called Jerusalem Delivered. But he grew more and more concerned that he was morally unfit as a Catholic, and that his poem would somehow offend the Church authorities. He spent a long time revising it to please them. He began, slowly, to go mad. He imagined that people were plotting against him, talked to people no one else could see, and attacked a servant with a knife. His patrons committed him to an asylum. Finally, in 1581, two of his friends published a version of Jerusalem Delivered. It won great popular success. Pope Clement the
Eighth made arrangements to crown Tasso poet laureate, but Tasso died a few days before the ceremony was to take place.

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Poem: "The History Teacher," by Billy Collins from Questions About Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press).

The History Teacher

Trying to protect his students' innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
"How far is it from here to Madrid?"
"What do you call the matador's hat?"

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom
on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

It's the birthday of children's writer Virginia Hamilton, born in Yellow Springs, Ohio (1936). Her grandfather was a slave who fled to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Every year he would sit his ten children down and tell them the story of his escape. She wrote the first books for children in which the fact that their characters were African-American wasn't the most important thing about them. Her novel M.C. Higgins the Great won a Newbury Medal, and the National Book Award as well. In 1992 she was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson medal, the first time an American had won the prize in over a decade. She died on February 19, 2002.

It's the birthday of Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, born Jean-Louise Kerouac, in Lowell Massachusetts (1922). His family was French-Canadian, and his first language was joual, the working-class French of Quebec. He dropped out of Columbia and took a series of road trips with a lighthearted young man called Neal Cassady, carrying in his knapsack the manuscripts of novels he was working on, as well as a dizzying stock of pharmaceutical supplies. In 1950 he sat down at his kitchen table and typed the entire manuscript of On the Road onto a single roll of teletype paper, so that he wouldn't have to stop to put new sheets in. It took him three weeks. Six years later, it was published, and it made him a celebrity. He made many public appearances as a spokesman for the Beat generation, but he drank steadily, his work deteriorated, and his life began to unravel. He moved back home to live with his mother, and died at the age of forty-seven. The roll of teletype paper sold at auction last year for 2.4 million dollars.

It's the birthday of the philosopher and clergyman George Berkeley, born near Thomastown, Ireland, (1685). As a clergyman, he worried that the ideas of thinkers like Isaac Newton and John Locke were dangerously close to atheism. His arguments were so ingenious, and his conclusions were so arresting, that they sometimes had the effect of prodding his opponents to do better work in order to reply to him. His most surprising philosophical claim was that nothing exists outside the mind-that objects which seem real are nothing more than our perceptions of them. Once, when his contemporaries Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were out for a walk, Boswell told Johnson that although he thought Berkeley's idea was preposterous, he couldn't think of any way to refute it. Johnson stopped and kicked a big rock. "I refute it thus," he said.

It's the birthday of writer and antiquary John Aubrey, born in Kingston, England, (1626). He's best known for his Brief Lives, sketches he made to help a friend of his who was writing official biographies. He wrote about eminent Englishmen from Thomas Hobbes to William Shakespeare. His portraits include details about what his subjects liked to eat for breakfast, the texture of their skin, and their preference in hats.

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Poem: "September," by Jennifer Michael Hecht from The Next Ancient World (Tupelo Press).


Tonight there must be people who are getting what they want.
I let my oars fall into the water.
Good for them. Good for them, getting what they want.

The night is so still that I forget to breathe.
The dark air is getting colder. Birds are leaving.

Tonight there are people getting just what they need.

The air is so still that it seems to stop my heart.
I remember you in a black and white photograph
taken this time of some year. You were leaning against a half-shed tree,
standing in the leaves the tree had lost.

When I finally exhale it takes forever to be over.

Tonight, there are people who are so happy,
that they have forgotten to worry about tomorrow.

Somewhere, people have entirely forgotten about tomorrow.
My hand trails in the water.
I should not have dropped those oars. Such a soft wind.

It's the birthday of Canadian writer W.O. Mitchell, born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan (1914). He worked as a deckhand on a steamer, a farmhand and a door-to-door salesman before publishing his first novel, Who Has Seen the Wind, in 1947. The novel was immediately successful, and Mitchell quit his day job and devoted himself to writing. He moved to Toronto, where he produced three hundred and twenty scripts for a popular radio show called Jake and the Kid. He wrote for television as well, and published many novels, studies of strong and quirky characters set on the prairies of western Canada.

It's the birthday of novelist Daphne du Maurier, born in London (1907). She published romantic novels set mostly on the stormy coast of Cornwall, where she lived herself for most of her adult life. Her novel Rebecca, about a timid second wife haunted by the ghost of her predecessor, was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. She had a steamy wartime romance with the actress Gertrude Lawrence, but stayed married to her husband until his death in 1965.

It's the birthday of the writer Sir Hugh Walpole, born in Auckland (1884). He served with the Russian Red Cross in World War One and won the Order of St George for bravery. After the war he began writing novels and short stories, most of them drawn from his own experience. He also wrote swashbuckling romances and gothic chillers with titles like The Killer and the Slain.

On this day in 1882, Eadweard Muybridge demonstrated his zoopraxiscope for the Prince of Wales, Prime Minister Gladstone, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson at the Royal Institution in London. The machine was a primitive ancestor of the movie projector. It allowed Muybridge to combine still photographs of animal movement into continuous, flickering life.

It's the birthday of the Austrian composer Hugo Wolf, born in what is now Slovenia (1860). His greatest works, settings of German, Spanish and Italian poems, were composed in just three years, from 1888 to 1891. He devoted himself to the perfect musical expression of poetry; in his songs, the words and the music seemed wedded to each other. His music received great popular and critical acclaim over the next few years, but by 1897 he had experienced a complete mental breakdown, and he died in an insane asylum at the age of 43.

It's the birthday of British statesman Charles Grey, the Second Earl Grey, born in Falloden, England (1764). He was elected to the House of Commons in 1786, and during his career managed to bring about significant political reform in Britain. It took forty years for Grey and his supporters to put together a government progressive enough even to consider giving the vote to non-aristocrats, but they passed the Great Reform Act in 1832, which allowed smaller landowners to vote, and kept ballots secret. While he was Prime Minister, his government also abolished slavery in the colonies and improved conditions for factory workers.

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Poem: "History Books," by Thomas Lux from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

History Books

That is, their authors, leave out
one thing: the smell. How sour, no rancid-bad cheese
and sweat-the narrow corridors of Hitler's bunker
during the last days powdered
by plaster shaken down
under bomb after bomb. Or (forward or backward
through time, history books take you) downstream
a mile or two from a river-crossing ambush
a corpse washes ashore
or catches in branches
and bloats in the sun. The carrion eaters
who do not fly
come by their noses: the thick,
ubiquitous, sick sweet smell.
Most of history, however,
is banal, not bloody: the graphite and wood smell
of a pencil factory, the glue-fertilizer-paper-
(oh redolent!) shoe-hat- (ditto malodor
and poisonous) chemical-salt cod-
tractor-etc. factories - and each one
peopled by people: groins, armpits, feet.
A bakery, during famine; guards, smoking, by the door.
Belowdecks, two years out, dead calm, tropics.
And wind a thousand miles all night combing
the tundra: chilled grasses, polar bear droppings,
glacial exhalations….Open
the huge book of the past: whoosh!: a staggering cloud
of stinks, musks
and perfumes, swollen pheromones, almond
and anise, offal dumps, mass graves exhumed, flower
heaps, sandalwood bonfires, milk vapors
from a baby's mouth, all of us
wading hip-deep through the endless
waftings, one bottomless soup
of smells: primal, atavistic - sniff, sniff, sniff.

It's the birthday of Italian novelist Italo Calvino, born in Cuba (1923). His parents were traveling botanists. They returned to Italy when he was two, and he was brought up in San Remo, surrounded by rare and curious plants. During the Second World War he was drafted into the Fascists and escaped into the Alps, where he joined the Communist resistance and fought the Germans. He said later that sitting around the fire at night and hearing the resistance fighters swapping war tales was his first lesson in storytelling. He worked as a journalist, and he also compiled several volumes of Italian folktales. His later novels drew reporting and fantasy together; they described dream-like events in disinterested prose.

It's the birthday of physicist Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, Germany, (1879). In 1905, while he was still working as a patent examiner, he published four papers in Germany's leading physics journal. Each one dealt with a separate area of physics, and each one broke new ground in its field. He did not win the Nobel Prize for the paper he had written about the Theory of Relativity-it was for one of the other papers, a description of the photoelectric effect. A clergyman in New York once sent him a telegram which said, "Do you believe in God? Stop. Prepaid reply fifty words." Einstein's reply used only thirty. "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists…"

It's the birthday of playwright Lady Augusta Gregory, born in County Galway, Ireland (1852). In 1894, she met the poet W. B. Yeats for the first time; he was interested in Irish folklore, but he could not speak Irish, and her translations impressed him. Together they set about to start a theatre where contemporary Irish drama could be staged. The trouble was that there weren't many contemporary Irish plays. Lady Gregory, who was now fifty, co-wrote plays with Yeats and wrote many more of her own. The Irish Literary Theatre was renamed the Abbey Theatre in 1904, and she remained one of its directors until she died.

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Poem: "On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love," by Jennifer Michael Hecht from The Next Ancient World (Tupelo Press).

On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love

Sometimes I think
we could have gone on.
All of us. Trying. Forever.

But they didn't fill
the desert with pyramids.
They just built some. Some.

They're not still out there,
building them now. Everyone,
everywhere, gets up, and goes home.

Yet we must not
diabolize time. Right?
We must not curse the passage of time.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Ben Okri, born in Minna, Nigeria (1959). He was born to the Urhobo people, the fifth largest ethnic group in Nigeria. He spent his early childhood in London while his father studied law, but returned to Lagos when he was seven, just after the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One afternoon when it was raining and he was bored, he drew a picture of the things that were sitting on the mantelpiece. Then he wrote a poem. "The drawing took about an hour, and it was awful," he said. "The poem took about ten minutes, and it was tolerable, bearable." He decided to become a writer. His novel, The Famished Road, won the Booker Prize in 1991.

It's the birthday of blues guitarist Lightnin' Hopkins, born in Centerville, Texas (1912). Hopkins wrote and sang and recorded a monumental catalogue of blues songs. He played on street corners, in small clubs and at Carnegie Hall.

It's the birthday of botanist and horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, born in South Haven, Michigan, (1858). By the age of fourteen he was helping the neighborhood farmers graft good apple stock onto their inferior trees. Cornell University offered him a position teaching horticulture in 1888. It was the first time they had ever had a professor of horticulture. His encyclopedia of cultivated plants, Hortus, is still considered a standard reference in the field.

It's the birthday of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, born in the Waxhaw settlement in South Carolina (1767). At the Battle of New Orleans, he had his troops dig a lot of fortifications on short notice so sharpshooters could fire on the British invaders. 2000 British soldiers were killed and only eight Americans were lost. As it happened, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed two weeks before that, and the British had already agreed to stop fighting, but news of the Treaty had not reached New Orleans. Jackson became a national hero anyway. He ran for President in 1824, but lost to Adams when the House of Representatives broke a tie in the electoral college; in 1828, three times as many voters went to the polls, and Jackson trounced Adams. It was Jackson who signed the Indian Removal Act and sent sixteen thousand Cherokee down the Trail of Tears; Davy Crockett, a congressman from Tennessee, resigned in protest.

It's the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was murdered in the Senate House in Rome, in 44 B.C. He had been ordered to stop fighting and lay down his command; instead, he crossed the Rubicon and started a civil war. He was a fearless commander, but as a civil leader he assumed privileges no one had before, and his arrogance toward the Senators turned them against him. He had been warned by a soothsayer that he would die on that day. He entered the Senate that morning and caught sight of the man, and teased him about his prophecy. "The Ides is not yet over," the soothsayer replied. When the attackers left and the Senate was empty, Caesar's slaves carried his body home on a litter. None of his assassins outlived him for very long, and there was civil war in Rome for another thirteen years.

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Poem: "Crying," by Galway Kinnell from Three Books (Houghton Mifflin).


Crying only a little bit
is no use. You must cry
until your pillow is soaked!
Then you can get up and laugh.
Then you can jump in the shower
and splash-splash-splash!
Then you can throw open your window
and, "Ha ha! ha ha!"
And if people say, "Hey
what's going on up there?"
"Ha ha!" sing back, "Happiness
was hiding in the last tear!
I wept it! Ha ha!"

It's the birthday of musician and composer William Henry Monk, born in London (1823). He was an English organist, and he was the music director of St. Matthias Church for nearly forty years. He edited the standard hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern, which sold, over the years, 60 million copies. He also wrote the hymn "Eventide," better known today as "Abide with Me."

It's the birthday of painter Rosa Bonheur, born in Bordeaux France, (1822). Her father was a painter who taught her himself, sending her to the Louvre to draw. She became fascinated with the idea of painting and sculpting animals. By the time she reached adulthood she had a menagerie of her own, including a sheep, which she kept out on the balcony of her family's sixth-floor apartment. She wore men's clothes, smoked tobacco in public, and rode astride instead of sidesaddle. She showed paintings at the Paris Salon every year; the huge, twelve-by-seven canvas "The Horse Fair" was taken to Queen Victoria for a private viewing; even Buffalo Bill was an admirer. She received a steady stream of commissions for most of her life, and made enough money not to have to worry about it.

It's the birthday of physicist Georg Ohm, born in Erlangen, Bavaria (1787). He dreamed of teaching at the University of Munich. He started experimenting with electromagnetic force, making all his own wire for his work in various thicknesses and lengths, and using mathematics to analyze his results. In 1827 he published the book for which he is best known, The Galvanic Circuit, Investigated Mathematically. In it he set out the relationships he had found between electric current, resistance, and voltage.

It's the birthday of the fourth president of the United States, James Madison, born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he made a careful study of all the governments in Europe. He called for a Constitutional Convention in 1787, and put forward the first draft of a plan for the new government. He also made detailed notes during the Convention, now the only remaining record of the proceedings. He wrote 29 of the newspaper articles now called The Federalist Papers, written as a kind of public relations move to explain the Constitution to the electorate. Madison was less able as a President than as a political theorist. The War of 1812 brought the country almost to its knees; the British sacked Washington, and Madison watched the White House burn from a nearby hill.

It's the birthday of astronomer Caroline Herschel, born in Hanover, Germany (1750). A bout of typhus fever when she was ten stunted her growth; she never grew any taller than four foot three. Her parents assured her that she was too odd-looking ever to hope to marry anyone, and urged her to direct her aspirations elsewhere. Her brother William, who was an organist, had moved to England to find work, and he brought her there and supported her studies. She learned music, English and mathematics, and she began to make a name for herself as a singer. But William had already gotten interested in astronomy, and enlisted her help as he mapped the heavens. He became the royal court astronomer, and eventually she too received a salary directly from the King for her work as William's assistant. After he died she went back to Germany and went on making observations and calculations; no errors have ever been found in her notes. She catalogued twenty-five hundred nebulae and discovered eight comets. She died at the age of ninety-seven.

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Poem: "In Line At The Supermarket," by Greg Pape from Storm Pattern (University of Pittsburgh Press).

In Line At The Supermarket

Here you've got time to think.
Between the breath mints
and the glamour magazines
you can feel yourself growing old
as you read the headlines
of the non-newspapers: "Country Doctor
Performs Head Transplant On Alien"
or something homier, "Passionate Groom
Kills Bride With First Kiss."
You're growing old alright,
but you'll never be as old
as the woman who runs her shopping cart
up against your hip bone
and keeps on pushing until you
have to say "Stop!" She stares at you
through the faintest blue haze,
her face ancient, perverse,
and you wonder what she sees.
The couple in front of you
have time to debate their selections.
"We don't need a ham this big," he says,
as he holds it under her nose.
"Yes we do" and she places her fingertips
on the ham and pushes it back down,
lightly, to the stalled conveyor.
They are younger than you are,
but it's hard to tell how much younger.
They too look worn and tired.
You stare at her spiked yellow hair
and her bare shoulders
just a breath away. On her left
shoulder a tattoo, like a brand,
that says Mike in shaky cursive.
You wonder if this man is Mike.
You think about slavery.
There was a man you worked with once
whose style was cool, ironic
like dry ice. He referred to his
nightshift job as a slave.
"This is my second slave" he said,
meaning he had a day job too,
meaning we have to become caricatures
of ourselves in order to do these jobs,
in order to live like this.
You wonder what Mike does
for a living. You stare at the tattoo
on his arm, a skull
with wings where the ears were,
and under that, in case you don't
get it, written in ribbony script,
all capitals, the word DEATH.
For some reason you want to laugh
but don't because Mike, if that's
his name, has just turned to you
out of boredom, and in a friendly voice
you wouldn't have expected
says "Man, this place is slow,
but I'd rather shop here
than that Pantry Pride down the street.
My old lady went there last week
for groceries, and when she came out
the car was stripped, wheels and everything.
That's a bad neighborhood, man,
you never know who you're gonna meet."

It's the day tradition says St Patrick died, in Saul, County Down, Ireland ( circa 460 AD). He was born to Christian parents, probably in Britain, but pirates carried him away as a boy and made him a slave in Ireland. He stayed there for six years, and then had a dream one night in which a voice told him that a ship was waiting to take him back to Britain. After several years in Britain, he had another dream, in which the voices of people he had known in Ireland begged him to return and preach to them. His Confessions are the first written records of the Irish people. In the Confessions, St. Patrick says, "I am, then, first of all, countrified, an exile, evidently unlearned, poorly equipped to anticipate events to come, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy, raised me ."

On this day in 1959, the Dalai Lama, then a young man of twenty-four, fled Tibet.

On this day in 1899, Marconi's wireless radio distress signal was first used to call for help after the German ship Elbe went aground in a heavy fog on the Goodwin Sands. The association responsible for the upkeep of lighthouses in Britain had been looking for a system to provide communication between lighthouses and the mainland, and Marconi demonstrated his signaling apparatus for them in December of 1898. They were impressed, installed Marconi's equipment, and used it three times in the first four months after the system went into operation.



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