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Poem: "Touched," by Deborah Tall from Summons (Sarabande Books).


At the ballet,
a woman sits down beside me,
sticks her hands on my pregnant belly, says,
"How are we tonight?"

Her embarrassed teenage daughter sinks
into the next seat
while you let loose
with a few good thumps.

I don't know why I tell you this-
you seemed to enjoy at least the music
and you'll soon meet many faces like that woman's
coming at you uninvited.

But I want you to know
how sad it made me-
this first time you were touched by someone
who wasn't going to love you.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet James Merrill, born in New York City (1926). He was the son of investment banker Charles E. Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch. He was thirteen when his parents divorced. He wrote about it in many poems. He wrote, "Always the same old story-/Father Time and Mother Earth,/A marriage on the rocks." He wrote in his memoir, A Different Person (1993), about visiting a doctor about his depression, saying that he didn't know how to live or how to love, he just knew how to write a poem. The doctor, he said, "listened closely, then acted with undreamed-of kindness and dispatch. 'Come with me,' he said, in a flash ushering me out of his downtown office and onto the back seat of a smart little pale-green motor-scooter. I put my arms, as instructed, about his stout, gray-suited person, and off we went in sunlight, through traffic, under trees, past architecture, over the muddy river to lunch."

It's the birthday of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the man who gave us the telephone, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1847). He was a teacher of the deaf and came to invent the telephone because he had been working on a device for the deaf for transmitting sound with electricity. One of his deaf pupils who knew of his invention, a woman named Mabel Hubbard, encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunity, and even offered to go with him to Philadelphia. He refused but went with her to the railroad station. She was so stubborn that she got on the train and as it moved off without him, she burst into tears. Seeing this, Bell rushed ahead and caught the train, without baggage or ticket. The exposition was a great success and Bell and Hubbard later married. He was the inventor of the telephone, but he refused to have a telephone in his own study and there was no telephone in his house in Florida where he spent the winters.

It's the birthday of crime writer Nicolas Freeling, born in London, England (1927). Freeling began writing a series of mystery novels starring the Dutch police inspector Piet van der Valk, a detective who uses intuition, gossip, and hunches as his guides, constantly curious, but taking frequent breaks from his investigation for well-cooked (and lovingly described) lunches with his French wife.

On this day in 1873, Congress enacted the Comstock Law, making it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" books through the mail. The law led to James Joyce's Ulysses being barred from the United States.

On this day in 1802, Ludwig van Beethoven published one of the most famous piano pieces ever written, the "Moonlight Sonata." Its official title is "Sonata number 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opus 27, number 2." He was never happy about how popular the sonata became and later said, "Surely I've written better things."

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Poem: "The Only Day in Existence," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House).

The Only Day in Existence

The morning sun is so pale
I could be looking at a ghost
in the shape of a window,
a tall, rectangular spirit
peering down at me now in my bed,
about to demand that I avenge
the murder of my father.

But this light is only the first line
in the five-act play of this day-
the only day in existence-
or the opening chord of its long song,
or think of what is permeating
these thin bedroom curtains

as the beginning of a lecture
I must listen to until dark,
a curious student in a V-neck sweater,
angled into the wooden chair of his life,
ready with notebook and a chewed-up pencil,
quiet as a goldfish in winter,
serious as a compass at sea,
eager to absorb whatever lesson

this damp, overcast Tuesday
has to teach me,
here in the spacious classroom of the world
with its long walls of glass,
its heavy, low-hung ceiling.

Literary Notes:

In 1789 on this day, the United States Constitution went into effect.

Composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi was born on this day in Venice, Italy, 1678. He composed music while working as an ordained priest. He didn't enjoy his day job, though, and he sometimes left the altar in the middle of celebrating mass to quickly jot down musical ideas. He is best known for The Four Seasons (1725).

It's the birthday of English novelist Alan Sillitoe, born in Nottingham, England (1928). He worked at a series of factory jobs, and got to know writer Robert Graves who suggested he write about his hometown of Nottingham. He did, and the result was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), a novel about Arthur Seaton, a lathe operator in a bicycle factory who has affairs with two sisters, both of whom are married. He is also remembered for his short story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1959).

It's the birthday of crime novelist James Ellroy, born in Los Angeles, California (1948). His parents where divorced and when he was ten years old, and during one of the weekends he spent with his father, Ellroy's mother was murdered. The crime was never solved. Ellroy and his father resided in a small apartment on Beverly Boulevard in a neighborhood between Hancock Park and Hollywood. Each week his father gave him two books, but because Ellroy could not get enough to read, he started to shoplift at Chevalier's, the local bookstore. He graduated from reading Ken Holt and the Hardy Boys to reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane. He went through a bad spell in his youth, was in prison, went through heavy drinking, used drugs, was homeless for a time. He then went into AA, got work as a caddy at a country club and began writing novels. His L.A. Confidential (1990) was a best seller. In 1994, after years of being haunted by the murder of his mother, he decided to try to find her murderer. He wrote the memoir, My Dark Places (1996), about the search and though he didn't solve the crime, he wrote that he recovered a truer memory of his mother.

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his publisher saying he'd just finished a new book -- The Old Man And The Sea. The book began, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone 84 days now without taking a fish." It was his last novel and his shortest, and it won him his first Pulitzer, and two years later he received the Nobel Prize.

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Poem: "Detail Waiting for a Train," by Stanley Plumly from The Marriage in the Trees (Ecco Press).

Detail Waiting for a Train

The main floor of Penn Station, early,
the first commuters arriving, leaving,
the man outstretched on his coat,
wide circles of survivors forming.

He's half in, half out of his clothes,
being kissed and cardio-shocked,
though he was likely dead before he landed.

This goes on for minutes, minutes more,
until the medics unhook the vanished heart,
move him onto the cot and cover him
with the snow-depth of a sheet

and wheel him the fluorescent length
of the hall through gray freight doors
that open on their own and close at will.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Leslie Marmon Silko, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico (1948). Silko was raised on a Pueblo Reservation in the Laguna tradition. Her community was made up matrilineal families, where women own the houses and the fields, and are the authority figures, and men do much of the child rearing. Silko once said, "I grew up with women who were really strong, women with a great deal of power. If someone was going to thwart you or frighten you, it would tend to be a woman. Your dad is the one who's the soft touch." Her first major success came in 1977, with her novel Ceremony (1977). It is the story of Tayo, a former World War II prisoner of war, who returns to his Laguna Pueblo reservation, where he listens to the ancient stories of his people. In it, Silko wrote, "I will tell you something about stories/[he said]/They aren't just entertainment./Don't be fooled./They are all we have, you see,/all we have to fight off illness and death./You don't have anything/if you don't have the stories."

It's the anniversary of the 1933 election that gave the Nazis and their Nationalist allies 52 percent of the seats in the German parliament (or Reichstag); the last free election in Germany until after World War II. Just five days after the election, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor of romantic languages living in Germany, wrote in his diary: "Since then day after day commissioners appointed, provincial governments trampled underfoot, flags raised, buildings taken over, people shot, newspapers banned, etc., etc…A complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all opposing forces as if vanished from the earth…No one dares say anything anymore, everyone is afraid."

On the same day in 1933, across the Atlantic from Germany, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered a four-day bank holiday in an effort to curtail the devastating "bank runs" of the Great Depression when panicky investors withdrew their money from the banks. The bank holiday seemed to settle things down in this country.

On this day in 1953, Josef Stalin died in Moscow. Before his death, Stalin's behavior had been growing more and more bizarre. He studied lists of his government officials and put question marks next to the names of those he planned to execute. He filled up the jails with men to be put on trial. Then, on March 1st, he was found unconscious on the floor of his room. His guards were too terrified to do anything when they found him, because it had been so long since they'd acted without his orders. They left him lying on his floor for thirteen hours. When the doctors finally arrived, they were trembling with fear at the thought of doing something wrong. The doctor who removed his false teeth was shaking so much he dropped the teeth on the ground. They eventually determined that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. He died four days later.

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Poem: "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," by Christopher Marlowe.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses,
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool,
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair-lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs;
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds' swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning;
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, born near Durham, England (1806). She was the author of the first love poems written from a woman's perspective in English, the sonnets that she wrote for her husband Robert Browning.

It's the birthday of sportswriter Ring W. Lardner born in Niles, Michigan (1885). He became famous for the way he captured the spoken rhythms and diction of the baseball players in his book of stories You Know Me Al (1916). He said, "Most of the successful authors of the short fiction of to-day never went to no kind of a college, or if they did, they studied piano tuning or the barber trade. They could of got just as far in what I call the literary game if they had of stayed home those four years and helped mother carry out the empty bottles."

It's the birthday of journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez, born in Aracataca, Colombia (1928). Until he was eight, Márquez was raised by his grandparents, and once said that all his writing had been inspired by the stories they told him. His grandfather was a Colonel and a liberal veteran of one of Columbia's worst civil wars. Gabriel's grandmother told him fantastic legends and tales of witches and ghosts. He became a reporter for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and later became a foreign correspondent, traveling all over Europe and the Americas. He had published fiction already, but had long wanted to write a novel based loosely on his hometown and his memories of his grandparents. His inspiration for the book came when he realized he had to write it in the same tone of voice his grandmother used when she told stories, describing both supernatural and political events as though there was no difference between them. The style later became known as "magical realism." Once he had the idea for the book he quit his job and wrote for eighteen months, without a break, smoking six packs of cigarettes every day. To support his wife and children, he sold his car and every household appliance, and borrowed money from all his friends. When he tried to sell pieces of his wife's jewelry, many of them wedding gifts, he found out that all the gems were made of glass. By the time the book was finished, he was $10,000 in debt, nearly poisoned by nicotine, and on the edge of a mental collapse. But the book, called One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), was a best seller, and he never had to worry about money again. The novel tells the story of the Buendía family in the fictional village of Macondo and begins, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." This was based on a true story that his grandfather told him. Márquez is also the author of Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), a story, based on his own parents, of two old lovers reuniting after 50 years.

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"Descending Theology: The Crucifixion," by Mary Karr.

Descending Theology: The Crucifixion

To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
      fix you into place.

Once the cross pops up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
      but your own self's burden?

You're not the figurehead on a ship. You're not
flying anywhere, and no one's coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
      trinity of nails holding you into place.

Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up
to breathe until you suffocate, give up the ghost.
If God permits this, one wonders how
      this twirling earth

manages to navigate the gravities and star tugs.
Or if some less than loving watcher
watches us scuttle across the boneyard greens
      under which worms

seethe and the front jaws of beetles
eventually clasp toward the flesh of every beloved.
The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels
      his soul leak away,

then surge. Some windy authority lures him higher
till an unseen tear in the sky's membrane is rent,
and he's streaming light, snatched back, drawn close,
      so all loneliness ends.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Bret Easton Ellis, born in Los Angeles (1964). His first book was Less Than Zero (1985), which documented the substance abuse and sex lives of teenagers in California. His third book, American Psycho (1991), is narrated by a Wall Street executive who tortures and mutilates women and homeless people.

It's the birthday of writer and environmentalist Rick Bass, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1958). He has adopted the remote Yaak Valley of Montana as his home, and has written several books on his life there, including Winter: Notes from Montana (1991), The Book of Yaak (1996), and Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had (2000), as well as a number of short stories and a novel, Where the Sea Used to Be (1998).

On this day in 1923, Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening," was published in the New Republic magazine. He said he wrote the poem in a few minutes and struggled only with the ending. He eventually decided to repeat the famous last line, "And miles to go before I sleep."

It was on this day in 1965 that a Civil Rights march was held by about 600 people attempting to walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as part of a voter registration drive. The group, made up mostly of African Americans, was driven away by more than fifty Alabama State Troopers and a few dozen possemen. That night the ABC network interrupted its feature film Judgment at Nuremberg to broadcast footage of the police suppressing the march and people falling on the highway. It was about a week later that, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of congress in which he embraced the cause of the voter registration drive and used the phrase "We shall overcome." Dr. Martin Luther King was watching the address on television, and at the end of it, he burst into tears. He had stayed home from the march because there was word he'd be assassinated, but he led a second march from Selma to Montgomery, after he was granted permission by a Federal judge. The second march began with a group of 2500 and ended with about 25,000 marching into Montgomery. When King arrived there on March 25th, he delivered a speech in which he said, "I know that you are asking today, 'How long will it take?' I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long. Because the arm of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

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Poem: "Saturday," by Daniel Hoffman from Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems 1948-2003 (Louisiana State University Press).


An experiment results in the transmutation
        of a fly and a man. When
the old castle of a vampire baron is restored
        the baron returns and goes
on a killing spree. A mad scientist transplants his
        insane assistant's brain in
another human. After a baby sea-monster
        is captured off the coast of
Ireland and placed in a London circus, its angry
        father makes a shambles of
the city. Suffering from exhaustion, a pop singer
        comes to a bee farm for rest
only to find her life endangered by the insane
        beekeeper. A vampire must
prey upon living humans to sustain its own life.
        The life of a young woman
is irrevocably changed when she moves into a
        sinister house. A public
opinion analyst, stumbling on a hillbilly
        family, becomes involved
in murder. A successful songwriter decides to
        pursue the girl of his dreams.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of writer John McPhee, born in Princeton, New Jersey (1931). He is the author of many books and a staff writer for many years for The New Yorker magazine. In his book Oranges (1967), about the orange growing business, he wrote, "An orange grown in Florida usually has a thin and tightly fitting skin, and it is also heavy with juice. Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange you have to get into a bathtub first. California oranges are light in weight and have thick skins that break easily and come off in hunks. The flesh inside is marvelously sweet, and the segments almost separate themselves. In Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange with a ten-ton truck and not even wet the pavement."

It's the birthday of chemist Otto Hahn, born in Frankfurt, Germany (1879). In 1944, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering the fission of heavy nuclei, which made the atomic bomb possible.

It's the birthday of essayist and children's author Kenneth Grahame, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859), known for his book The Wind in the Willows (1908), one of the best-known children's classics in the English language. When he was five years old his mother died of scarlet fever, and Kenneth, delirious and near death from the disease himself, could not understand his mother's failure to be near him. That spring he and his siblings went to live with their grandmother in her big, run-down house on the Thames, and he played freely in the meadow and on the river bank, withdrawing into an imaginary world. When he returned at age forty-six to the rural area where he had lived as a child, and began exploring it with his small son, he found he remembered every detail and association. He developed the idea that children need a "secret kingdom" in their minds where they could go when upset or bored by the rest of the world. Grahame helped steer children's literature away from stories about how children should behave, and just tried to appeal to their imaginations. He wrote his famous book almost by accident. He was working at a bank at the time, and publishing essays on the side. Every night he came home to his son, whom he'd nicknamed Mouse, and told him bedtime stories before bed. The stories were about the adventures of a Badger, a Mole, a Toad, and a Water rat. In May 1907, Grahame's son went with his governess on a holiday, and Grahame continued telling his son bedtime stories in letters. These letters became the first draft of The Wind In the Willows. He said, "There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats… In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do."

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Poem: "The Wars," by Howard Moss New Selected Poems.

The Wars

How can I tell you of the terrible cries
Never sounded, of the nerves that fail,
Not in jungle warfare or a southern jail,
But in some botched affair where two people sit
Quite calmly under a blood-red lamp
In a Chinese restaurant, a ludicrous swamp
Of affection, fear drowning in the amber
Tea when no word comes to mind
To stand for the blood already spilled,
For rejection, denial, for all those years
Of damage done in the polite wars?

And what do I know of the terrible cries
That are really sounded on the real hill
Where the soldiers sweat in the Asian night
And the Asians sweat where the soldiers flail
The murderous grass, and the peasants reel
Back in a rain of gasoline,
And the shells come home and the bombs come down
Quite calmly under a blood-red moon
Not far from China, and the young are killed,
Mere numerals in the casualties
Of this year's war, and the war of years?

He stands with a knife in the Daily News.
They are snaking their way into the hills.
She is walking up Broadway to hurt again.
They are fleeing under a hail of shells.
He is taking her neck into his hands.
A human seed squats in the dark.
She is scalding the baby in the bath.
He feels the bullet enter his skin.
She spits in the face of the riot squad.
They are sitting down, they are opening wounds.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of composer Samuel Barber, born in West Chester, Pennsylvania (1910). He wrote beautiful tunes and melodies in a period of the 20th century when it was growing unfashionable to write melodic music.

Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman was born on this day in Fort Worth, Texas, 1930. Between 1959 and 1961, he and his original quartet played a new style of jazz called "free jazz," in which each piece opened and closed with a melody, but solos dispensed with chords and harmony altogether, instead playing quite freely off of the mood of the theme.

Napoleon Bonaparte married Josephine on this day in 1796. At the time, Napoleon was still just a famous general, and Josephine was of much greater social stature. On the day of the wedding, he was in a rush to get back to a campaign on Italy and was three hours late to the wedding ceremony.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Mickey Spillane, the pen name of Frank Morrison, born in Brooklyn, New York (1918). He was the of the novels I, the Jury (1946) and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952) in which he introduced the character of private detective of Mike Hammer. He once said, "I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers. And customers are your friends."

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, biographer, and garden-writer Vita Sackville-West, born in Knole, England (1892). She grew up in a wealthy family in a mansion with 365 rooms, wrote as a teenager and married for convenience. It wasn't until she began an affair with a woman named Violet Keppel, whom she had met in school when she was twelve, that she found real love. Violet once wrote to Vita, "You are my lover and I am your mistress and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination." After the affair ended she wrote the novel Challenge (1923), about a turbulent relationship between a man named Julian and a woman named Eve. She went on to have other love affairs, most notably with Virginia Woolf, who is said to have based the androgynous main character of Orlando on Sackville-West. She once said, "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?"

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