Poem: "That Silent Evening" by Galway Kinnell, from The Past © Houghton Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.
That Silent Evening
I will go back to that silent evening
when we lay together and talked in low, silent voices,
while outside slow lumps of soft snow
fell, hushing as they got near the ground,
with a fire in the room, in which centuries
of tree went up in continuous ghost-giving-up,
without a crackle, into morning light.
Not until what hastens went slower did we sleep.
When we got home we turned and looked back
at our tracks twining out of the woods,
where the branches we brushed against let fall
puffs of sparkling snow, quickly, in silence,
like stolen kisses, and where the scritch scritch scritch
among the trees, which is the sound that dies
inside the sparks from the wedge when the sledge
hits it off center telling everything inside
it is fire, jumped to a black branch, puffed up
but without arms and so to our eyes lonesome,
and yet also - how could we know this? - happy!
in shape of chickadee. Lying still in snow,
not iron-willed, like railroad tracks, willing
not to meet until heaven, but here and there
making slubby kissing stops in the field,
our tracks wobble across the snow their long scratch.
Everything that happens here is really little more,
if even that, than a scratch, too. Words, in our mouths,
are almost ready, already, to bandage the one
whom the scritch scritch scritch, meaning if how when
we might lose each other, scratches scratches scratches
from this moment to that. Then I will go back
to that silent evening, when the past just managed
to overlap the future, if only by a trace,
and the light doubles and shines
through the dark the sparkling that heavens the earth.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892. He's the creator of a world called Middle Earth and its inhabitants, characters like hobbits Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, as well as dragons, trolls, elves, goblins, and other creatures. Educated at Oxford during the outbreak of WWI, he spent his free time writing poetry and inventing languages, until he was called to the Western Front and fought at the Battle of Sommehe fought in and out of the trenches for four months until he was hospitalized with trench fever. During his long recovery he wrote tales about elves that later became The Silmarillion. But it wasn't until about 1930 that he started his most famous worksas an English professor, he was grading papers one day and was bored, and in a fit of daydreaming he wrote on one of the papers' pages, "In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit...." The novel The Hobbit followed, published in 1937and then came a sequel trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. From his introduction to the original edition of The Hobbit:
"If you care for journeys there and back, out of the comfortable Western world, over the edge of the Wild, and home again, and can take an interest in a humble hero (blessed with a little wisdom and a little courage and considerable good luck), here is a record of such a journey and such a traveler."
It's the birthday today of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman statesman, author, and orator, born in 106 B.C. in Arpinum, in modern-day Italy. He was a member of the Roman Senate, and a friend and follower of General Pompey the Great, who was the archenemy of the emperor Julius Caesar.
It was on this day in 1946 that Evelyn Waugh's most popular novel, Brideshead Revisited, was published.
And it was on this day in 1521 that German reformer Martin Luther, 38, was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo X for challenging the church doctrine. Luther was a professor of biblical interpretation at the time, at a university in Germany, and he'd just drawn up his 95 theses condemning the church for the selling of indulgencesor the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V called him to defend himself later that year, but Luther was defiant, and for it he was declared an outlaw and a heretic.
Poem: "New Hampshire, February 7, 2003" by Maxine Kumin, from Jack and Other New Poems © W. W. Norton. Reprinted with permission.
New Hampshire, February 7, 2003
It's snowing again.
All day, reruns
of the blizzard of '78
for bragging rights
how it was to go hungry
after they'd thumped
the vending machines empty
the weatherman clomping
four miles on snowshoes
to get to his mike
so he could explain
how three lows
could collide to create
a lineup of isobars
footage of state troopers
peering into the caked
windows of cars
backed up for white
miles on the interstate.
No reruns today
of the bombings in Vietnam
2 million civilians blown
apart, most of them children
under 16, children
always the least
able to dive
for cover when
all that tonnage bursts
from a blind sky.
Snow here is
weighting the pine trees
while we wait for the worst:
for war to begin.
Schools closed, how
love a benign blizzard
a downhill scrimmage
of tubes and sleds. But who
remembers the blizzard
that burst on those other children?
Back then we called it
and will again.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday today of Louis Braille, born in a small town called Coupvray on the outskirts of Paris in 1809. His father was a harness and shoemaker, and as a toddler the young Louis was playing with an awl in his father's workshop when it slipped and pierced his eye, damaging it forever.
By the time he was four, his remaining eye had been blinded by infection, and he lost his sight permanently. He showed a lot of promise in school, though, especially in music, and he was sent to Paris, to the Royal Academy for the Blind, on scholarship. He was taught to read there by feeling raised print on paper; that was the best system available at the time. The reading material was made by impressing letters made of copper wire into the paper. It was cumbersome to produce and slow-going to read, because it was difficult to differentiate the letters by touch, and although it enabled blind people to read, they couldn't write on their own.
Then in 1821, the young Braille was introduced to a military communications technique called "night writing," a complicated system of 12 raised dots that were combined to represent certain sounds. It had been rejected by the Army because it was too difficult to catch on, but Braille saw promise in the system. He spent the next few years experimenting with it, and simplified it, using just 6 dots, to create the Braille language, first for words and then for math and music. The first book in Braille was published in 1827, but the system didn't catch on in Braille's lifetime; he died in 1852 of tuberculosis at age 43, and it was only after his death that the system slowly rose in popularity. In fact, the magnitude of Braille's achievement wasn't recognized until the 20th century, and 100 years after his death, in 1952, the French government exhumed Braille's body and buried it in the Pantheon in Paris, along with other great heroes of France. Braille is now used worldwide, and has been adapted to almost every known language.
It's the birthday of Jacob Ludwig Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany, in 1785. Jacob was a passionate philosopher, and a linguist and librarian by trade. But with his younger brother Wilhelm Carl Grimm he is the reason that children all over the world read stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel. The Brothers Grimm wrote down and published for the first time the fairy tales and folklore that had been passed down orally in Germany for generations. The tales they wrote were provided to them both by educated friends and by peasants from the surrounding countryside. At first, the brothers aimed to record the stories exactly as they'd been told. But the tales themselves were quite grim, often very cruel and scary, and in later revisions they changed some of the details and endings to make them a little softer, a little friendlier, and a little more moral.
Poems: "Starting the Subaru at Five Below" by Stuart Kestenbaum, from Pilgrimage © Coyote Love Press. Reprinted with permission. And "Happiness" by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: The Collected Poems © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.
Starting the Subaru at Five Below
After 6 Maine winters and 100,000 miles,
when I take it to be inspected
I search for gas stations where they
just say beep the horn and don't ask me to
put it on the lift, exposing its soft
rusted underbelly. Inside is the record
of commuting: apple cores, a bag from
McDonald's, crushed Dunkin' Donuts cups,
A flashlight that doesn't work and one
That does, gas receipts blurred beyond
recognition. Finger tips numb, nose
hair frozen, I pump the accelerator
and turn the key. The battery cranks,
the engine gives 2 or 3 low groans and
starts. My God it starts. And unlike
my family in the house, the job I'm
headed towards, the poems in my briefcase,
the dreams I had last night, there is
no question about what makes sense.
White exhaust billowing from the tail pipe,
Heater blowing, this car is going to
move me, it's going to take me places.
So early it's still almost dark out.
I'm near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren't saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other's arm.
It's early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Italian writer Umberto Eco, born in 1932 in Alessandria, Italy. He was educated at the University of Turin where he started out studying law but gave it up to follow an interest in literature and medieval philosophy. His first foray into fiction was the novel The Name of the Rose, about a mysterious string of murders at a medieval abbey. He explained, "I began writing in March 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk." The work was a strong success in Europe and North America; French director Jean-Jacques Annaud turned the story into a 1986 movie starring Sean Connery, which helped to popularize Eco in the United States as a novelist and encourage him to continue to write long fiction. He followed it up in 1988 with the novel Foucault's Pendulum, and then a few years later, a sweeping tale titled The Island of the Day Before. Umberto Eco, who wrote: "I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us."
It's the birthday of American explorer Zebulon Montgomery Pike, born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1779. In 1805, just after the Louisiana Purchase, he led an eight-month expedition with 20 men along the upper Mississippi River in an attempt to reach the headwaters. With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States had bought the upper Mississippi from the French, and Pike's job was to determine the location of the headwaters, to scout out good locations for military outposts along the river, and to sign treaties with the French traders who'd settled in the area. It wasn't a very successful trip. He reached Leech Lake in what is now Minnesota, but never Lake Itasca, the true headwaters, and he failed to make any Native American allies or drive many French from the territory.
It was on this day in 1825 that the writer Alexandre Dumas the elder fought his first duel, at the age of 23. He lost the battle, and a bit of dignity as wellhis pants fell down as he stood opposite his opponent.
Poem: "By the Shores of Pago Pago" by Eve Merriam, from Rainbow Writing © Atheneum. Reprinted with permission.
By the Shores of Pago Pago
Mama's cooking pots of couscous,
Papa's in the pawpaw patch,
Bebe feeds the motmot bird,
and I the aye-aye in its cage,
Deedee's drinking cups of cocoa,
while he's painting dada-style,
Gigi's munching on a bonbon
(getting tartar on her teeth),
Toto's drumming on a tom-tom,
Fifi's kicking up a can-can,
Jojo's only feeling so-so
and looking deader than a dodo,
Mimi's dressing in a muumuu,
Nana's bouncing with her yo-yo,
stirring batter for a baba,
Zaza doesn't make a murmur,
Kiki hopes her juju beads
will help to ward off tsetse flies,
Lulu's looking very chichi
in a tutu trimmed with froufrou:
does all this mean our family's cuckoo?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, born in New York City in 1931. He was senior editor of The New American Library for a few years, then the editor in chief at Dial Press, and since then he has built a 30-year career as a writer and instructor. He has taught at the University of California-Irvine, Sarah Lawrence College, the Yale University Drama School, Princeton, and New York University, where he now works. He's the author of novels, essays, plays, and short stories, and he's best known for his 1975 novel Ragtime, which won the first National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. His other novels include Billy Bathgate, World's Fair, and The Book of Daniel.
It's the birthday of poet Khalil Gibran, born in Bsharri, Lebanon, in 1883. He emigrated to the United States with his parents as a boy, settled in New York in 1912, and devoted himself to writing, first in Arabic and later in English. In 1920 he founded a society for Arab writers, called Mahgar. His best known work is The Prophet, a collection of 26 poetic essays in which a prophet, on his way home after living abroad for 12 years, stops to teach the mysteries of life to a crowd of strangers. The book is often quoted at weddings, especially the poem "On Marriage," which begins,
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
Khalil Gibran, who wrote: "Should we all confess our sins to one another we would all laugh at one another for our lack of originality."
It's the birthday of French book illustrator Gustave Doré, born in Strasbourg in 1833, the most prolific and famous illustrator in Europe in the 19th century. His images defined the horror genre as we know it todayas much as the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe did. His most famous illustrations adorned the pages and covers of Dante's Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.
It's the birthday of Saint Joan of Arc, the French heroine of the Hundred Years War. She was born in the town of Domremy, France, on the border of the province of Champagne, in 1412. She was born and raised on her family's farm, and at age 12 she began hearing voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret, urging her to cut her hair, wear men's clothes, and join the army, and telling her that her mission in life would be to free France from the English. She followed their lead, and after enlisting she was promoted to the rank of Captain. She led her troops to a sweeping victory in the Battle of Orléans. When King Charles VII was crowned King of France, she sat in a place of honor at his side. But less than a year later, she was captured and sold to the English, who tried her for witchcraft and heresy, and burned her at the stake in 1431. She was 19 years old.
It's the birthday of Carl Sandburg, journalist, poet, novelist, and biographer, born in a three-room cottage in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1878. Sandburg produced a two-volume biography of Lincoln, published in 1926, but was too intrigued with his subject to stop there, so he published four more volumes titled Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. For that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1940. Ten years later he received a second Pulitzer, this one for poetry, for his anthology, Complete Poems.
Poems: "For a Five-Year-Old" by Fleur Adcock, from Poems 1960-2000 © Bloodaxe Books. Reprinted with permission. And "About Friends" by Brian Jones, from Spitfire on the Northern Line © Chatto and Windus. Reprinted with permission.
For a Five-Year-Old
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.
The good thing about friends
is not having to finish sentences.
I sat a whole summer afternoon with my friend once
on a river bank, bashing heels on the baked mud
and watching the small chunks slide into the water
and listening to them - plop plop plop.
He said, 'I like the twigs when they...you know...
like that.' I said, 'There's that branch...'
We both said, 'Mmmm'. The river flowed and flowed
and there were lots of butterflies, that afternoon.
I first thought there was a sad thing about friends
when we met twenty years later.
We both talked hundreds of sentences,
taking care to finish all we said,
and explain it all very carefully,
as if we'd been discovered in places
we should not be, and were somehow ashamed.
I understood then what the river meant by flowing.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the anniversary of the first bit of motion picture to be copyrighted. In 1893, Thomas Edison Studios filmed a comedian named Fred Ott sneezing. It was registered for a copyright on this day in 1894.
The Fannie Farmer Cookbook debuted on this day in 1896, written by the woman called "the mother of the level measure," Fannie Merritt Farmer.
On this day in 1927, the first transatlantic phone service was installed, allowing telephone customers to call from New York to London for the first time.
"Buck Rogers," the first American science-fiction comic strip, debuted on this day in 1929, as did one of the first American adventure comic strips, "Tarzan."
It's the birthday of German-American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, born in Solingen, Germany, in 1830, and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Bierstadt went abroad in his 20s to study painting. He was a student in Düsseldorf, Germany, and in Rome in the 1850s. Returning to the United States, he joined a survey team in the American western frontier in 1859 and sketched the majestic landscapes he saw therethe Rocky Mountains, Yosemite Valley, the Merced River. He then settled to work in a studio in New York City and created huge realistic panoramas based on his sketches of Western scenery.
It's the birthday of Saint Bernadette, born Marie Bernarde Soubirous, in Lourdes, France (1844). She saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, instructing her to have a chapel built at the Grotto of Massabielle, where healing waters from the spring would perform miracles for the sick.
It's the birthday of cartoonist Charles Addams, born in Westfield, New Jersey (1912). He's best known for his macabre humor and the Gothic settings of his cartoons, which regularly appeared in The New Yorker.
Poem: "Teaching a Child the Art of Confession" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark: Prose Poems © University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with permission.
Teaching a Child the Art of Confession
It is best not to begin with Adam and Eve. Original Sin is
baffling, even for the most sophisticated minds. Besides,
children are frightened of naked people and apples. Instead,
start with the talking snake. Children like to hear what animals
have to say. Let him hiss for a while and tell his own tale.
They'll figure him out in the end. Describe sin simply as those
acts which cause suffering and leave it at that. Steer clear of
musty confessionals. Children associate them with outhouses.
Leave Hell out of the discussion. They'll be able to describe it
on their own soon enough. If they feel the need to apologize
for some transgression, tell them that one of the offices of the
moon is to forgive. As for the priest, let him slumber a while
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of British physicist Stephen Hawking, born in Oxford, England (1942), who pursues what physicists call a Grand Unified Theory, or a "Theory of Everything." As Hawking puts it, "My goal is simple. It is complete understanding of the universe." His most important work in physics has explored the nature of "singularities," anomalies in the space-time continuum commonly known as "black holes." In 1988 he published A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, a book that brought his work to a general audience. In the mid-1960s, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and given three months to live. When asked about living with the disease many years later, he told an interviewer that he was "happier now" than before he became ill. "Before, I was very bored with life. I drank a fair bit, I guess; I didn't do any work... When one's expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything that one does have."
It's the birthday of English poet Charles Tomlinson, born in Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire (1927), the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including The Necklace (1955) and American Scenes (1966). In 1979 he collaborated with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz on a bilingual volume of poetry called Air Born/Hijos en Aire, in which each translated the other man's poems.
It's the birthday of English novelist Storm Jameson, born in Whitby, Yorkshire (1891). She often set her novels in Yorkshire, and wrote a trilogy of books about a ship-building family called The Triumph of Time (1932). She preferred travel to writing, and once said: "I would infinitely rather write than cook, but I would rather run around the world, looking at it, than write."
It's the birthday of American poet and novelist John Neihardt, born near Sharpsburg, Illinois (1881). In 1901 he moved to Nebraska, where he became acquainted with many of the local Omaha Indians. He became fascinated with their culture, and his interviews and research formed the basis of his book, Black Elk Speaks (1932).
It's the birthday of publisher Frank Doubleday, born in Brooklyn, New York (1862). He started working for Charles Scribner's Sons at the age of 15, and became editor of their magazine. Then, in 1897, he joined with Samuel S. McClure to found his own house. He published Joseph Conrad, Selma Lagerlöf, Sinclair Lewis, and many other great writers. He's also known for the terrible thing he did to Theodore Dreiser: after publishing Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie in 1900, he withdrew it almost immediately because he did not approve of it.
It's the birthday of English novelist Wilkie Collins, born in London (1824), author of Antonina (1850) and other novels, and a lifelong friend of Charles Dickens.
It's the birthday of hymn composer Lowell Mason, born in Medfield, Massachusetts (1792). Between 1818 and 1822, he composed and arranged dozens of hymns, including "Nearer My God to Thee," "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds," and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."
Poem: "The Cossacks" by Linda Pastan, from The Last Uncle © W. W. Norton and Co.
Reprinted with permission.
For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.
Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm
is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate
New Year's Eve by counting
my annual dead.
My mother, when she was dying,
spoke to her visitors of books
and travel, displaying serenity
as a form of manners, though
I could tell the difference.
But when I watched you planning
for a life you knew
you'd never have, I couldn't explain
your genuine smile in the face
of disaster. Was it denial
laced with acceptance? Or was it
generations of being English
Brontė's Lucy in Villette
living as if no fire raged
beneath her dun-colored dress.
I want to live the way you did,
preparing for next year's famine with wine
and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.
But listen: those are hoofbeats
on the frosty autumn air.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Philippa Gregory, born in Nairobi, Kenya (1954), who now lives in Hartlepool, England. She's the author of a trilogy of novels about the Laceys, a family of wealthy 18th-century landowners. Wideacre (1987) was the first in the series.
It's the birthday of Irish playwright Brian Friel, born Bernard Patrick Friel, near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland (1929). He was working as a teacher in Londonderry when his short stories began appearing in the New Yorker. This early success encouraged him to become a full-time writer. His first major play was Philadelphia, Here I Come! (1964); since that time, he has written over two dozen plays, including Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).
It's the birthday of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, born in Yorba Linda, California (1913). He ran for president in 1960, and lost to John F. Kennedy by only 113,000 out of 69 million votes cast. Two years later, he lost the race for governor of California and announced that he was quitting politics, saying, "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around any more." But in 1968 he ran for President a second time, this time defeating the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey.
It's the birthday of French writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, born in Paris (1908). She's the author of novels and autobiographical works, including Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958), but she is best known for her influential study of women in society, The Second Sex (1949). Gloria Steinem said: "If any single human being can be credited with inspiring the woman's movement, it's Simone de Beauvoir."
It's the birthday of the man who created "Blondie"Murat Bernard (Chic Young), born in Chicago (1901). The strip started in 1930 as the story of a playboy and his flapper girlfriend. After a year or two, a manager at King Features approached Young with a suggestion. "Why don't you have them marry? You know more about married life than you do about dating anyway." Dagwood and Blondie were married on February 13, 1933, and Young's comedy of high society was recast in middle-class suburbia.