Poem: Untitled Poem by David Ignatow from New & Collected Poems, 1970-1985 (Wesleyan University Press).
I sink back upon the ground, expecting to die. A voice speaks out of my ear, You are not
going to die, you are being changed into a zebra. You will have black and white stripes
up and down your back and you will love people as you do not now. That is why you
will be changed into a zebra that people will tame and exhibit in a zoo. You will be a
favorite among children and you will love the children in return whom you do not love
now. Zoo keepers will make a pet of you because of your round, sad eyes and musical
bray, and you will love your keeper as you do not now. All is well, then, I tell myself
silently, listening to the voice in my ear speak to me of my future. And what will happen
to you, voice in my ear, I ask silently, and the answer comes at once: I will be your
gentle, musical bray that will help you as a zebra all your days. I will mediate between
the world and you, and I will learn to love you as a zebra whom I did not love as a
It's the anniversary of Black Sunday, on this day in 1935, when a major dust storm hit the plains states. After weeks of dust storms, the day started out clear and sunny. People went outside to enjoy the blue skies; they went to church, they took walks and had picnics. Then, in mid-afternoon, the temperature dropped and a black cloud of dust swept over everything at sixty miles per hour. Woodie Guthrie wrote about it in his collection, Dust Bowl Ballads:
It fell across our city
Like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment
We though it was our doom.
Shortly before midnight on this date in 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The cruise ship, on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, had half as many lifeboat spaces as passengers, and many of the lifeboats were only partly filled when they were lowered into the water. The sea was about 30 degrees and over 1,500 people drowned in its icy waters. The liner Californian, less than 20 miles away, could have saved most of the passengers had its radio operator been on duty to hear the Titanic's distress calls.
On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., while attending a play. It was the first presidential assassination in U.S. history. At the play's intermission, the President's bodyguard went next door to the saloon for a drink. During the third act, while the audience laughed at a funny line, a 26-year-old actor, John Wilkes Booth, snuck behind the president and shot him at point-blank range.
On this day in 1828, lexicographer Noah
Webster published the first edition of An American Dictionary of
the English Language. He was 70 years old, and he'd been working on it for
more than 35 years. It had 70,000 entries, and it sold out in a little over
a year, with more copies in England than America, despite harsh attacks on its
"Americanisms" -- spelling "plow" with a "w,"
for example. He taught himself 26 languages to write the dictionary, including
Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit, and he was the first to document distinctively American
words, such as skunk, stampede, and chowder.
the Privacy of the Home," by Mark
Strand from Sleeping With One Eye Open (Stone Wall Press).
In the Privacy of the Home
You want to get a good look at yourself. You stand before a mirror, you take off your
jacket, unbutton your shirt, open your belt, unzip your fly. The outer clothing falls from
you. You take off your shoes and socks, baring your feet. You remove your underwear.
At a loss, you examine the mirror. There you are, you are not there.
Today is Tax Day. Congress ratified the sixteenth amendment in 1913, giving the power of taxation to the government, and ever since then taxes have been due on the fifteenth day of April. Mark Twain said, "What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin." In Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), Scarlett O'Hara says, "Death and taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them!" Russian author Anton Chekhov wrote, "Death can only be profitable: there's no need to eat, drink, pay taxes, offend people, and since a person lies in a grave for hundreds or thousands of years, if you count it up the profit turns out to be enormous." It was Benjamin Franklin who wrote, in 1789, "Our Constitution is in actual operation; everything appears to promise that it will last; but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."
On this day in 1802, William
Wordsworth took the walk with his sister Dorothy by Ullswater Lake in England
that inspired his poem "Daffodils" (1804). Dorothy described the
scene in her diary: "The wind seized our breath, the Lake was rough...When
we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the
water side...as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under
the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the
shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road." Two years later,
Wordsworth wrote his famous poem:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd, --
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
"They stood up proud and tall and warm,
Just like my federal income tax form."
It's the birthday of novelist, short story writer, and
critic Henry James,
born in New York City (1843). He was an American who wanted to be British. He
was from a wealthy family, and when he was twelve they moved to Europe for several
years. He once said to two English friends, "However British you may be,
I am more British still." He's considered one of the greatest American
writers of his generation, master of the "international novel," but
he had an ambivalent attitude toward America throughout his life. He liked what
he called the "denser, richer, warmer European spectacle" with its
"complexity of manners and types." He said, to his niece, "I
hate American simplicity." In 1875 he moved to Paris, where he met important
novelists of the day, including Zola, Flaubert, and Turgenev. His early novels,
including The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1879), and The
Portrait of a Lady (1881), are about Americans living and traveling abroad.
To his sister-in-law, James wrote, "Dearest Alice, I could come back to
America (could be carried on a stretcher) to die -- but never, never to live."
He lived the last two decades of his life in England. He was angry when the
United States didn't enter World War I at its start, and so he became a British
citizen in 1915. It cost him his reputation in America; he remained unread and
out-of-print for years after he died in 1916, until the 30's, when his reputation
For a Sleepless Child
If your room is ever too dark,
small one, look out through your window
up at the moon, that little bulb
left on for you in the sky's black wall.
It will still be there come morning,
burning in a bright room of blue.
And if your room, restless one,
is much too still, listen to the clatter
of the freight, rattling past trestles
on the cool night breeze. Then follow
the moon to the side of the tracks,
where the train is a long, slow dream
you can jump on. An open car
is waiting for you -- one step up --
you're on! Now watch the dark towns, the lights
deep in the porches, and lie down
in the soft straw, and sleep till morning,
when the train chugs into the station,
noisy with birds and wires overhead.
It's the birthday of British
writer Kingsley Amis,
born in London, England (1922). He went off to Oxford, where he met the poet,
Philip Larkin, who became his lifelong friend. Amis was a poet as well, but
he's best known for his satiric novels. His first, Lucky Jim (1954),
is about Jim Dixon, a young university instructor who bumbles his way through
a thankless job. The novel's outspoken irreverence for the British class system
made Amis one of Britain's "Angry Young Men." He went on to write
more than 40 books, including I Like It Here (1958), One Fat Englishman
(1963), and The Old Devils (1986). Amis said, "I dislike men and
women when they are cold-hearted
, unpleasant to those who can't hit back
unable to allow others to finish a sentence, stingy, disinclined to listen to
reason and fact, bad hosts, bad guests, affected, racialist, intolerant of homosexuality,
anti-British, members of the New Left, passively boring." His son, Martin
Amis, is also a well-known novelist.
It's the birthday of aviator Wilbur Wright, born near Millville, Indiana (1867). His brother was Orville Wright. They lived in Dayton, Ohio; they were in the bicycle business and set out to make an airplane. In 1899, Wilbur wrote to the U.S. Weather Bureau to get a list of the windiest places in America. Number six was Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and that's where he made the first sustained flight of a self-propelled plane, on December 17, 1903. On a sandy beach in high winds he flew 852 feet in 59 seconds. There were no reporters at the test flight -- the audience was five men, two boys, and a dog.
It's the birthday of Irish playwright John Millington Synge, born in Rathfarnham, near Dublin (1871). He met William Butler Yeats in Paris in 1896; Yeats encouraged him to go to the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Ireland, a place where local customs and the Irish language were untouched by British rule. For four years Synge spent summers there, and the islanders' stories inspired his best work, the plays The Riders to the Sea (1902), In the Shadow of the Glen (1902), and The Playboy of the Western World (1907).
You're the Top
Of all the people that I've ever known
I think my grandmother Bernice
would be best qualified to be beside me now
driving north of Boston in a rented car
while Cole Porter warbles on the radio;
Only she would be trivial and un-
politically correct enough to totally enjoy
the rhyming of Mahatma Ghandi
with Napoleon brandy;
and she would understand, from 1948,
the miracle that once was cellophane,
which Porter rhymes with night in Spain.
She loved that image of the high gay life
where people dressed by servants
turned every night into the Ritz:
dancing through a shower of just
into the shelter of a dry martini.
When she was 70 and I was young
I hated how a life of privilege
had kept her ignorance intact
about the world beneath her pretty feet,
how she believed that people with good manners
naturally had yachts, knew how to waltz
and dribbled French into their sentences
like salad dressing. My liberal adolescent rage
was like a righteous fist back then
that wouldn't let me rest,
but I've come far enough from who I was
to see her as she saw herself:
a tipsy debutante in 1938,
kicking off a party with her shoes;
launching the lipstick-red high heel
from her elegant big toe
into the orbit of a chandelier
suspended in a lyric by Cole Porter,
bright and beautiful and useless.
It is the birthday of playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, born in Madison, Wisconsin (1897). His father was a newspaper editor and diplomat, and his family spent time in China, where Thornton's father was the American Consul General. He served in both World Wars, and became a lieutenant colonel in 1944. His big break was his second novel, The Bridge Over San Luis Ray (1927), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He also won Pulitzer Prizes for his plays Our Town (1937), about a small New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners, and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). He was a cheerful person -- his work was more optimistic than many of his contemporaries. This was reflected in a line he wrote for Emily in Our Town: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --every, every minute?" He said, "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate." He said, "Literature is the orchestration of platitudes." Wilder said, "I am not interested in such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions." He wrote, "The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.' And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure."
It's the birthday of writer Isak
Dinesen, born in Rungsted, Denmark (1885). Her real name was Karen,
and she took the pseudonym to hide her gender. When her first book, Seven
Gothic Tales (1934), was published and chosen for the Book of the Month
Club, an aura of mystery surrounded it. She's most famous for her memoir Out
of Africa (1937). It's written in a plain style, like that of Hemingway,
who said the Nobel Prize should have been given to Dinesen, and not to him.
In Love with Raymond Chandler
An affair with Raymond Chandler, what a joy! Not because
of the mangled bodies and
the marinated cops and hints of eccentric sex, but because of his interest in furniture. He
knew that furniture could breathe, could feel, not as we do but in a way more muffled,
like the word upholstery, with its overtones of mustiness and dust, its bouquet of
sunlight on aging cloth or of scuffed leather on the backs and seats of sleazy office
chairs. I think of his sofas, stuffed to roundness, satin-covered, pale blue like the eyes of his
cold blond unbodied murderous women, beating very slowly, like the hearts of
hibernating crocodiles; of his chaises longues, with their malicious pillows. He knew
about front lawns too, and greenhouses, and the interiors of cars.
This is how our love affair would go. We would meet at a hotel, or a motel,
whether expensive or cheap it wouldn't matter. We would enter the room, lock the door,
and begin to explore the furniture, fingering the curtains, running our hands along the
spurious gilt frames of the pictures, over the real marble or the chipped enamel of the
luxurious or tacky washroom sink, inhaling the odor of the carpets, old cigarette smoke
and spilled gin and fast meaningless sex or else the rich abstract scent of the oval
transparent soaps imported from England, it wouldn't matter to us; what would matter
would be our response to the furniture, and the furniture's response to us. Only after we
had sniffed, fingered, rubbed, rolled on, and absorbed the furniture of the room would
we fall into each other's arms, and onto the bed (king-size? peach-colored? creaky?
narrow? four-posted? pioneer-quilted? lime-green chenille-covered?), ready at last to do
the same things to each other.
On this day in 1775, Paul
Revere made his famous ride from Boston to warn the patriots that the British
troops were on the march. The Minutemen were ready the next morning on Lexington
green for the battle that launched the War of Independence. The poet Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow wrote about the day in a ballad, "Paul Revere's Ride":
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
On this day in 1906, the Great San Francisco Earthquake struck just after five a.m., measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale. San Francisco was poorly prepared for the quake, with thousands of un-reinforced brick buildings and closely-spaced wooden Victorian houses. It was the worst disaster ever to hit a North American city. Over three thousand people died. Sleeping people were trapped in their beds, gas mains exploded, and cattle stampeded through the streets. A fire broke out that lasted three days and swept through the entire downtown area, destroying 514 city blocks -- water mains were broken, and firemen were helpless. There was looting, and an outbreak of bubonic plague spread by rats.
It's the birthday of publisher Clifton Keith Hillegass, born in Rising City, Nebraska (1918), the man behind Cliff Notes, the black-and yellow-striped pamphlets that students have used for literary study guides or substitutes for the real thing since 1958. In each one, Hillegass used to include a signed note to readers that said: "A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts." When the company was bought for $14 million in 1998, the new owners kept the bumblebee-striped design but dropped the note.
It's the birthday of lawyer and writer Clarence (Seward) Darrow, born in Kinsman, Ohio (1857). Darrow fought for unions, racial equality, and the poor, and he became famous for defending some of the most unpopular people of his time. He once said: "I never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with a lot of pleasure."
It's the birthday of beat poet Bob
Kaufman, born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1925). He was a great improvisational
poet in North Beach, San Francisco. He was so dedicated to spontaneous poetry
that he rarely wrote down any of his work; some critics call him one of the
great-undiscovered geniuses of the Beat generation. In 1963 he was so moved
by the assassination of John F. Kennedy that he took a vow of silence. He kept
it for twelve years, until the day the Vietnam War officially ended in 1975.
Poem: "Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny," by Lisel Mueller from Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press).
Reading the Brothers Grimm
Dead means somebody has to kiss you.
Jenny, your mind commands
kingdoms of black and white:
you shoulder the crow on your left
the snowbird on your right;
for you the cinders part
and let the lentils through,
and noise falls into place
as screech or sweet roo-coo,
while in my own, real world
gray foxes and gray wolves
bargain eye to eye,
and the amazing dove
takes shelter under the wing
of the raven to keep dry.
Knowing that you must climb,
one day, the ancient tower
where disenchantment binds
the curls of innocence,
that you must live with power
and honor circumstance,
that choice is what comes true-
O, Jenny, pure in heart,
why do I lie to you?
Why do I read you tales
in which birds speak the truth
and pity cures the blind,
and beauty reaches deep
to prove a royal mind?
Death is a small mistake
there, where the kiss revives;
Jenny, we make just dreams
out of our unjust lives.
Still, when your truthful eyes,
your keen, attentive stare,
endow the vacuous slut
with royalty, when you match
her soul to her shimmering hair,
what can she do but rise
to your imagined throne?
And what can I, but see
beyond the world that is
when, faithful, you insist
I have the golden key-
and learn from you once more
the terror and the bliss,
the world as it might be?
The English poet George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, died on this day in 1824. He was in Greece to aid the war for independence against the Turks when he caught a fever while riding horseback in the rain. His death was hastened by the "bleeding" which was often used to try to cure illnesses in those days. His body was taken to the family vault in England, and his heart and brain were placed in a large urn. Lord Byron had become a hero to the Greeks, and they were devastated by his death. The Greek Prince Mavrocordato issued a proclamation of general mourning. At dawn on April 20, a thirty-seven-gun salute -- one for each of Byron's years -- was fired. Businesses closed for three days, Easter festivities were cancelled, and requiem services were arranged in all major towns. On order of the Prince, black was worn for three weeks.
Early on this day in 1775, the first battle of the American Revolutionary War began when several hundred British troops marched into Lexington, Massachusetts on a mission to capture Patriot munitions. On Lexington Green, 77 minutemen faced 700 British troops. The captain of the minutemen, John Parker, gave the order, "Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here." From behind a wall a shot was fired by the British, and it became "the shot heard round the world" in Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, "The Concord Hymn."
It's the birthday of Clifford
Berry, born in Gladbrook, Iowa (1918). The young Clifford became enthralled
with all things electric, and he built his own radio at the age of 11. Clifford
went to Iowa State University and he became co-inventor of the electronic computer.
Together with John Vincent Atanasoff, he built the world's first electronic
digital computer in 1940.
Poem: "Permanence," by Lawrence Raab from Visible Signs (Penguin Books).
I can't remember how old I was,
but I used to stand in front
of the bathroom mirror, trying to imagine
what it would be like to be dead.
I thought I'd have some sense of it
if I looked far enough into my own eyes,
as if my gaze, meeting itself, would make
an absence, and exclude me.
It was an experiment, like the time
Michael Smith and I set a fire in his basement
to prove something about chemistry.
It was an idea: who I would
or wouldn't be at the end of everything,
what kind of permanence I could imagine.
In seventh grade, Michael and I
were just horsing around
when I pushed him up against that window
and we both fell through--
astonished, then afraid. Years later
his father's heart attack
could have hit at any time,
but the day it did they'd quarreled,
and before Michael walked out
to keep his fury alive, or feel sorry for himself,
he turned and yelled, I wish you were dead!
We weren't in touch. They'd moved away.
And I've forgotten who told me
the story, how ironic it was meant
to sound, or how terrible.
We could have burned down the house.
We could have been killed going through
that window. But each of us
deserves, in a reasonable life,
at least a dozen times when death
doesn't take us. At the last minute
the driver of the car coming toward us
fights off sleep and stays in his lane.
He makes it home, we make it home.
Most days are like this. You yell
at your father and later you say
you didn't mean it. And he says, I know.
You look into your own eyes in a mirror
and that's all you can see.
Until you notice the window
behind you, sunlight on the leaves
of the oak, and then the sky,
and then the clouds passing through it.
Today is Easter Sunday in the Christian church, the holiday that commemorates Jesus Christ's resurrection from the dead. In the Bible, Mark (16:2-8) wrote:
"And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; --it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you."
The roots of the Easter Bunny go way back; the hare was a symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt, the Anglo-Saxons worshipped the goddess Eostre through her earthly symbol, the rabbit. In the middle ages, those that could afford it wrapped Easter eggs in gold leaf. Peasants colored them by boiling them with the leaves or petals of flowers.
It is the birthday of surrealist painter and sculptor Joan Miró, born in Barçelona, Spain (1893). He said, "The smallest thing in nature is an entire world. I find my themes in the fields and on the beach." He's famous for his paintings The Farm (1921), The Harlequin's Carnival (1924) and Dog Barking at the Moon (1926).
It's the birthday of American sculptor Daniel
Chester French, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1850.) He had a long
and productive career as America's most famous sculptor of monuments. He designed
the 19-foot-tall marble statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial
in Washington, D.C. (1922) and many other statues.