Poem: "Bess," by Linda Pastan from The Last Uncle (W.W. Norton).
When Bess, the landlord's black-eyed
daughter, waited for her highwayman
in the poem I learned by breathless
heart at twelve, it occurred to me
for the first time that my mild-eyed
mother Bess might have a life
all her owna secret past
I couldn't enter, except in dreams.
That single sigh of a syllable
has passed like a keepsake
to this newest child, wrapped now
in the silence of sleep.
And in the dream I enter,
I could be holding my infant mother
in my arms: the same wide cheekbones,
the name indelible as a birthmark.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee (1968). King's friend Ralph Abernathy was in the room at the Lorraine Motel when King was shot on the balcony. Long afterward, he said he remembered the smell of the aftershave he had on his hands, and a sound like a firecracker from out on the balcony. It took several hours for the news to spread; a curfew had been declared in Memphis, and news crews had gone home. In Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy told his campaign audience the news; they wept. On Broadway, actors announced the death from the stage. There were riots in sixty cities.
It's the birthday of Vertamae Grosvenor, born in Hampton County, South Carolina (1938). She was the smaller of two premature twins, and her grandmother put her in a shoebox and fed her goat's milk out of an eyedropper. Her family spoke Gullah, a South Carolina dialect spoken by the descendents of slaves. She went to Paris at eighteen and bought yams one day from a Senegalese woman in an open-air market. When she asked the woman how to cook them, she realized she'd stumbled on a cuisine like the one she had grown up with, and she began to write about Gullah cooking and Sea Island traditions.
It's the birthday of Annie Dillard, born Annie Doak, in Pittsburgh (1945). Her first prose book, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
It's the birthday of the missionary scholar William Smalley, born in Palestine (1923). In the early fifties he lived in the hills of Laos, and helped develop a way to write the Hmong language using the Roman alphabet. It's still the standard way to write Hmong.
It's the birthday, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915), of the great country-blues singer Muddy Waters. In 1941 and '42, he recorded for Alan Lomax, the folklorist of the library of Congress, and the experience emboldened him to move to Chicago to start his own music career. He played in various bands in bars on the south side of Chicago, and in 1950, he made the first recording for Chess Records, a tune called "Rolling Stone." He later became famous for songs like "Hoochie-Koochie Man," and "Got My Mojo Working."
It's the birthday of Dorothea Dix, born in Hampden, Maine (1802). She was the first person in the United States to suggest that mentally ill people were not criminals, and that prisons were not the best place to keep them. When she started to work for the construction of more asylums for the insane, there were only eleven such hospitals in the whole country. She never married and she never settled anywhere-she was too busy traveling throughout the country, visiting the ill in prisons and hospitals and talking to politicians
Poems: "In Second Grade Miss Lee I Promised Never To Forget You And I Never Did," by Alberto Rios from The Smallest Muscle in The Human Body (Copper Canyon Press), and "How It Is with Family," by William Stafford from The Way It Is (Graywolf Press).
In Second Grade Miss Lee I Promised Never To Forget You And I Never Did
In a letting-go moment
Miss Lee the Teacher
Who was not married
And who the next year was not at school,
Said to us, her second grade,
French lovers in the morning
Keep an apple next to the bed,
Each taking a bite
On first waking, to take away
The blackish breath of the night,
You know the kind.
A bite and then kissing,
And kissing like that was better.
I saw her once more
When she came to sell encyclopedias.
I was always her favorite -
The erasers, and the way she looked at me.
I promised, but not to her face,
Never to forget
The story of the apples.
Miss Lee all blond and thin,
Like a real movie star
If she would have just combed herself more.
Miss Lee, I promised,
I would keep apples
How It Is with Family
Let's assume you have neglected to write
a brother or a sister. The closeness you had for years
is gone. But now there's a need-let's assume
it's about money or something. You still know
them so well you feel right about it. You begin,
and even if they don't respond, your words and the whole
idea go along as part of the world: you don't have to
be correct. You say, "It's Bob," "It's Peg," "I'm just
writing them." Let's assume someone blames
you-the reaching out as if no time had passed.
You're surprised: there's a part of the way things are
that calculating people can't know. You don't
waste much time following out that strangeness, you
just write, "Bob," or "Peg," "It's me-send the money."
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Joseph Rykwert, born in Warsaw (1926). He was trained as an architect and wrote mostly about architecture, but he also published several biographies and a couple of volumes of poetry. One of his books, The Seduction of Place, is a study of modern cities.
It's the birthday of Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, born in New York City (1908). Together with her brother Frank, she wrote Cheaper by the Dozen, a memoir of life with her eccentric, time-obsessed father.
On this day in 1887, teacher Annie Sullivan taught her blind and deaf student Helen Keller that the spelled-out letters "W-A-T-E-R" meant the liquid that flowed out of the pump.
It's the birthday of the poet Charles Algernon Swinburne, born in London (1837). He wrote finely crafted poetry about daring subjects; his collection Poems and Ballads, published in 1866, contained poems about sadism and vampires. Two weeks after the first printing, when outraged reviews began to appear, the publisher withdrew all copies from sale and said they intended to sell them as scrap paper. Swinburne found another publisher, who gathered up all the scrapped copies, pasted in his own title page, and kept the book in print for another seven years.
Poem: "In the Hospital," by George Garrett from Days of Our Lives Lie in Fragments (Louisiana State University Press).
In the Hospital
Here everything is white and clean
as driftwood. Pain's localized
and suffering, strictly routine,
goes on behind a modest screen.
Softly the nurses glide on wheels,
crackle like windy sails, smelling of soap,
I'm needled and the whole room reels.
The Fury asks me how I feel
and, grinning turns to the brisk care
of an old man's need, he who awake
is silent, at the window stares,
sleeping, like drowning, cries for air.
And finally the fever like a spell
my years cast off. I notice now
nurse's firm buttocks, the ripe swell
of her breasts. It seems I will get well.
Next visitors with magazines;
they come whispering as in church.
The old man looks away and leans
toward light. Dying, too, is a routine.
I pack my bag and say goodbyes.
So long to nurse and this Sargasso Sea.
I nod to him and in his eyes
read, raging, the seabird's lonely cries.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the screenwriter Dudley Nichols, born in Wapakoneta, Ohio (1895). He wrote screenplays in Hollywood during the thirties and forties, including Stagecoach (1939), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), and The Big Sky (1952). He was famous for having his characters deliver long speeches about justice, truth, and brotherhood; his nickname in Hollywood was "The Preacher."
On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested for sodomy after failing to prove his case of libel against the Marquis of Queensbury. The Marquis had accused Wilde of having an affair with his son. In custody, Wilde complained, "If this is how Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, then she doesn't deserve to have any."
It's the birthday of the poet Dan Andersson, born in Sweden (1888). He was born to a wretchedly poor family in a small town. The family thought they might emigrate to join relatives in Minnesota, and sent him there at the age of fourteen to see what their prospects might be, but things were no better there than they had been in Sweden, and Andersson came home without a dime. He was self-educated, and read widely on his own-Kant and Schopenhauer, and the poems of Tagore. He's best known for a book of poems called Tales of a Charcoal Burner (1914).
It's the birthday of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, born in London (1810). He started the world's first aquarium, in Regent's Park, London, which opened in 1853.
On this day in 1748, excavations began at Pompeii, a Roman city destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. The young Bourbon King Charles III heard about the beautiful marble statues unearthed in a nearby town, and he wanted to have some of his own. The excavations at Pompeii and at nearby Herculaneum became one of the most popular attractions on the Grand Tour of Europe. The clean lines of the exposed ruins inspired the Neo-classical movement in art and architecture.
On this day in 1327, the poet Petrarch saw Laura for the first time. It was on Good Friday, in the church of Saint Claire in Avignon. Her identity has never been confirmed; some scholars doubt she actually existed. Petrarch dedicated three hundred and sixty-six sonnets to her, some of which were written long after her death.
Poem: "I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud," by William Wordsworth.
I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud
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,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazedand gazedbut little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the singer Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore (1915). She was a young girl when she heard Louis Armstrong sing for the first time. Her apartment in the Bronx was always open to unemployed musicians, and she left a plate on the table that held money for food and subway fares. In her autobiography, she wrote, "Singing songs like the 'The Man I Love' or 'Porgy' is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck."
It's the birthday of the writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, born in Minneapolis (1890). She was a society reporter at the Miami Herald when she discovered the Florida Everglades and its dazzling profusion of plant and animal species. At the time, the idea of preserving a great swamp like the Everglades was considered foolish. If dams were built, large tracts of land could be developed, and everybody would profit. But Douglas wrote about the idea of saving the Everglades just the way they were. She was a short woman, and she wore big glasses, but she was a persuasive writer and speaker, and she succeeded in getting legislation passed to halt further construction.
It's the birthday of the poet Gabriela Mistral, born in Chile (1889). As a young woman, she taught high school all over the country, then went abroad to represent Chile at the League of Nations. She published poetry throughout her career, and she became Chile's most celebrated poet. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945, she decided to return home, a place she had not visited for many years. A big parade was held in her honor when she returned to Santiago, but she was more interested in returning to the little town in the Andes where she had grown up. She traveled all day, full of anticipation, but got there too late to see anything. The next day, the whole village came out to dance in her honor.
It's the birthday of William Wordsworth, born in Cockermouth, Cumbria (1770). As a young man, he embraced the politics of the French revolution. The poems in his first collection, Lyrical Ballads, used such fresh and simple words that critics did not know what to make of them. As time went on, he began to worry more about money. He got a government job, and wrote a tourist guidebook about the Lake District. At the end of his life, he accepted the post of England's poet laureate. The younger generation felt Wordsworth had given up every ideal he'd ever stood for. Very late in his life, he wrote letters to the newspaper protesting the extension of the Kendal and Windermere railway into the Lake District. He said it would bring hordes of working-class tourists into a beautiful place they hadn't been trained to appreciate properly. The railway line was not extended, and to this day there is no rail service inside the Lake District.
Poem: "I Will Make You Brooches," by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I Will Make You Brooches
I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me
Of green days in forests and blue days at sea.
I will make my kitchen, and you shall keep your room,
Where white flows the river and bright blows the broom,
And you shall wash your linen and keep your body white
In rainfall at morning and dewfall at night.
And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955), who grew up in rural Kentucky. Her first novel was The Bean Trees (1988). She's also the author of Pigs in Heaven (1993), and The Poisonwood Bible (1998).
It's the birthday of journalist Seymour Hersh, born in Chicago (1937), who broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
It's the birthday of jazz singer Carmen McRae, born in Harlem, New York (1920). At 19 she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater on 125th street in Harlem. She was noticed by the wife of pianist Teddy Wilson, who played for Billie Holidayand so was able to meet her greatest musical inspiration. "If Billie Holiday had never existed," she said years later, "I probably wouldn't have either."
It's the birthday of editor and publisher Robert Giroux, born in New Jersey (1914). He worked his way through the ranks of what was then Harcourt, Brace & Company, and discovered author Jean Stafford. Later, he discovered Bernard Malamud, and published Malamud's first novel, The Natural, in 1952. Other authors he edited in his long career include Carl Sandburg, Flannery O' Connor, Jack Kerouac, and T.S. Eliot.
It's the birthday of novelist John Fante, born in Denver, Colorado (1911). He settled in L.A. during the depression, and wrote many novels set there-including Ask the Dust (1939), Full of Life (1952), Brotherhood of the Grape (1977) and Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982).
It's the birthday of songwriter (E.Y.) "Yip" Harburg, born in New York City (1898). He wrote the words to "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (1932), "April in Paris" (1932), and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (1939), among others.
On this day in 1871, Robert Louis Stevenson, 20 years old, told his father he was giving up engineering to become a writer. He suffered from chronic poor healthhe would die of tuberculosis at 44which had made schooling difficult, yet he was expected to carry on his father's trade of lighthouse design. He married a divorced American, and the couple moved to Switzerland, where he wrote the adventure story Treasure Island (1883). He later wrote Kidnapped (1887), and A Child's Garden of Verses (1885).
Poem: "The First Green of Spring," by David Budbill from Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse (Copper Canyon Press).
The First Green of Spring
Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,
this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting
to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,
harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching
on this message from the dawn which says we and the world
are alive again today, and this is the world's birthday. And
even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we
will never be young again, we also know we're still right here
now, today, and, my oh my! don't these greens taste good.
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1940, in the early morning hours, Hitler's troops invaded Norway and Denmark. The invasion involved almost the entire German navy, six army divisions and a sizable air contingent. By the end of the day, German forces controlled most of the strategic positions in both countries. Copenhagen fell in 12 hours. Much of Norway also fell, except for the northern part of Norway, the Narvik region, where a severe winter had left piles of snow on the ground. The Nazis were engaged in heavy fighting there for several months. Norway's King Haakon the Seventh and his family had fled Oslo by train shortly after the start of the invasion, and they stayed out of the country until the last Allied troops withdrew in June. He was forced to make a narrow escape aboard the British cruiser HMS Devonshire to London, where he led a Norwegian government in exile from London for five years.
It's the birthday of songwriter and satirist Tom Lehrer, born in New York City (1928). He wrote many, many songs, including "The Old Dope Peddler," "The Vatican Rag," "We Will All Go Together When We Go," and, of course, "We're Having Hanukah in Santa Monica."
It's the birthday of J.William Fulbright, born in Sumner, Missouri (1905). A U.S. Senator from Arkansas, he gave his name to the Fulbright Scholarships, which provide for the exchange of students and teachers between the United States and other countries.
On this day in 1865, on a Palm Sunday, the American Civil War officially ended. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at a farmhouse in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The following day, General Lee issued his last order to his men, in which he said: "I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them. But valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss [of more men]. I bid you all an affectionate farewell."
It's the birthday of Eadweard Muybridge, born in Kingston-on-the-Thames, England (1830). An early photographer, it was he who took the series of photographs that show that when a horse trots, all four hooves leave the ground for just an instant.
It's the birthday of French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, born to a wealthy family in Paris (1821). At 36, he published his only collection of poetry, Les Fleurs de Mal (1857, The Flowers of Evil).
Poems: "The First Spring Day," by Christina Rossetti.
The First Spring Day
I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,
If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,
If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun
And crocus fires are kindling one by one:
Sing, robin, sing;
I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.
I wonder if the springtide of this year
Will bring another Spring both lost and dear;
If heart and spirit will find out their Spring,
Or if the world alone will bud and sing:
Sing, hope, to me;
Sweet notes, my hope, soft notes for memory.
The sap will surely quicken soon or late,
The tardiest bird will twitter to a mate;
So Spring must dawn again with warmth and
Or in this world, or in the world to come:
Sing, voice of Spring,
Till I too blossom and rejoice and sing.
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1974, Israeli
prime minister Golda Meir resigned after five years in office, saying,
"I have had enough."
She went to say: "I became prime minister because that was how it was, in the same way that my milkman became an officer in command of a machine-gun squad in the '73 war. He didn't want the job but somebody had to do it."
It's the birthday of David Halberstam, born in the Bronx, New York (1934), author of many best-selling non-fiction books. He said: "I like living in New York City. It's my city, and it's home to other writers. Writing is extremely lonely work, and the opportunity to go for a walk with a friend or have dinner with a colleague once a week is one of the city's special pleasures. My friends and I do not have to see each other every day, but the knowledge that we are there for one another, that an unofficial support system is close at hand, that we can get together whenever we want, is a comforting one, something not to be underestimated."
It's the birthday of novelist Paul Theroux, born in Medford, Massachusetts (1941). He went off to the Peace Corps, and taught English in Uganda. He wrote novels about Africa, and also about Singapore. Then, in 1974, he took a trip through Asia, the Far East, and the Soviet Union, taking notes along the way. Through his notebooks he wrote The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975). It was a bestseller, as were his other travel memoirs: The Old Patagonian Express: By Train through the Americas (1979), The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around Great Britain (1985), and other books. He said: "A person becomes a writer because they're deficient. They have problems. They're crazy. They have unhappy families. They're eccentric. And not because they've read a lot of books necessarily, but on the contrary - maybe they haven't read enough books. There's a strong irrationality about the writing life. Often a writer writes just to maintain their sanity."
It's the birthday of labor leader Dolores Huerta, born in the small New Mexico mining town of Dawson (1930). In the early 1960s, Huertaalong with Cesar Chavezfounded the United Farm Workers union.
It's the birthday of journalist and newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, born in Budapest, Hungary (1847). He came to this country at the age of seventeen, and joined the army. After he was discharged, he went to St. Louis, became a reporter, and was elected to the State legislature. Then he began to buy newspapers-including the New York World. Later, he endowed the Columbia University School of Journalism, and established annual Pulitzer prizes for literature, drama, music and journalism.
It's the birthday of Lewis Wallace, born in Brookville, Indiana (1827). A General in the U.S. Civil War, he's best known to us as the author of the novel Ben Hur (1880).