Poem: "Having Children" by Barbara Tanner Angell, from The Long Turn Toward Light. © Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Reprinted with permission.
A siren goes by,
the scream cuts through me
even though my child is home.
For a moment I think...
Where am I?
In the middle of the night
a cry, dreamed
or heard, a wave washes
over the body of my child.
I have let her drown
or fall. She has fallen
from a high balcony
and I have let it happen.
Negligence. I feel
as if I'm plummeting...
Oh let this be a dream.
I'll be better next time.
I'll watch, I'll watch, I'll watch.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, born in Calcutta (1811). His father worked for the British East India Company. William Makepeace Thackeray said, "There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know until he takes up a pen to write." He's best known for his novel Vanity Fair, the story of Becky Sharp, who fights her way up through society by any means necessary. Her character delivers the novel's most famous line when she says, "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year."
It's the birthday of Jessamyn West, born in North Vernon, Indiana, author of The Friendly Persuasion.
It's the birthday of the playwright Clifford Odets, Philadelphia, known for his plays Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy.
It's the birthday of Nelson Mandela, born in Cape of Good Hope, South Africa (1918). His father was the chief of the Tembu tribe.
It was on this day in 1925, the first edition of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, was published.
And today, the 18th of July, is believed to be the anniversary of the fire that burned Rome in 64 AD, while the emperor Nero supposedly played his fiddle. In fact, he wasn't in Rome. He was away at his holiday villa on the coast, and when he heard about the fire, he rushed back to the capital and took charge of the operations.
The rumors about his playing his fiddle probably came from people in the Roman military who did not approve of Nero's artistic leanings. He'd come to power at the age of 16. He was the youngest ruler in the history of Rome. He was more interested in music and poetry than in battling the barbarians. And he didn't play the fiddle; he did play the lyre. But his real passion was singing. He was also known to be a transvestite, which did not endear him to the soldiers.
One of the rumors being spread at the time was that Nero had himself started the fire because he was disgusted by the architecture in Rome and wanted to rebuild the city. And to bolster his own image against these rumors, Nero decided that the fire needed to be blamed on someone else, and he picked out the Christians who were generally loathed by Romans.
The religion of Christianity was only a few decades old when Nero singled it out. Nero rounded up Christians; they were covered in the skins of wild animals, torn to death by dogs, crucified, or they were burned at the stake.
Most Romans at the time despised Christians, but Nero's program of persecution went further than the people wanted. It had the unintended effect of making people sympathize with Christians. And a little more than 200 years later, the emperor of the Roman Empire himself converted to Christianity, and it became the dominant religion of Europe.
Poem: "To a Daughter Leaving Home" by Linda Pastan, from The Imperfect Paradise. © W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
To a Daughter Leaving Home
When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
for your life, screaming
the hair flapping
behind you like a
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1954, the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, The Fellowship of the Ring. It was the sequel to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, which came out in 1937. Tolkien had written The Hobbit for his own amusement and didn't expect it to sell well. It's the story of a small, human-like creature with hairy feet named Bilbo, who goes on an adventure through Middle Earth and comes back with a magical ring.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "I am in fact a hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands. I smoke a pipe, like good, plain food, detest French cooking ... I am fond of mushrooms, have a very simple sense of humor ... go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much."
The Hobbit sold pretty well, partly because C.S. Lewis gave it a big review when it came out. And so Tolkien's publisher asked for a sequel. Tolkien decided the new book would be about Bilbo's nephew Frodo, but for a long time he had no idea what sort of adventure. Finally, he decided it would be about the magical ring, though the ring had not been such an important part of The Hobbit.
Tolkien spent the next 17 years working on The Lord of the Rings. He was a professor at Oxford. He had to write in his spare time, usually at night, sitting by the stove in the study in his house.
He was well into his first draft by the time World War II broke out in 1939. He hadn't set out to write an allegory, but once the war began, he started to draw parallels between the war and the events in his novel: the land of evil in The Lord of the Rings, Mordor, was set east of Middle Earth, just as the enemies of England were to the east.
The book became more and more complicated as he went along. It was taking much longer to finish than he'd planned. He went through long stretches where he didn't write anything. He thought about giving up the whole thing. He wanted to make sure all the details were right, the geography, the language, the mythology of Middle Earth. He made elaborate charts to keep track of the events of the story. His son Christopher also drew a detailed map of Middle Earth.
Finally, in the fall of 1949, he finished writing The Lord of the Rings. He typed the final copy himself sitting on a bed in his attic, typewriter on his lap, tapping it out with two fingers. It turned out to be more than a half million words long, and the publisher agreed to bring it out in three volumes. The first came out on this day in 1954. The publisher printed just 3,500 copies, but it turned out to be incredibly popular. It went into a second printing in just six weeks. Today more than 30 million copies have been sold around the world.
Poem: "My Aunt Raises Violets from Africa" by Janice Moore Fuller, from Sex Education. © Iris Press, Tennessee. Reprinted with permission.
My Aunt Raises Violets from Africa
All those loose threads
from her sewing, trailing
off bobbins toward Chattanooga,
Nashville, Myrtle Beach, Niagara
Falls. She snapped them at the hem
with her teeth, those worn
She never learned to drive.
Didn't leave Grandma's
yard for thirty years.
Her Singer just hummed.
She never stopped wearing
that engagement ring he gave her at twenty,
measuring time by how deep
it sank into her finger
even after he died, still her fiancé,
an old man living with his mother.
We only whispered his name.
At night, after the Bible verses,
she'd coat herself with vapor rub,
thick and Vicks blue,
then dial up the DJ
who knew her voice,
yearning for the smooth of Englebert
soothing her into bed
back to back with Grandma.
When I spent the night,
we'd tend the violets
lined like bassinets
along the north:
double lavenders, crystal
stars, angel blues, pink
persuasion. So careful.
We never touched their velvet
not even the undersides.
We just turned them each day,
their faces straining
toward the sun.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1933). He's the author of the Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.
It was on this day in 1875 that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. It was a swarm about 1,800 miles long, 110 miles wide, from Canada down to Texas. North America was home to the most numerous species of locust on earth, the Rocky Mountain locust. At the height of their population, their total mass was equivalent to the 60 million bison that had inhabited the West. The Rocky Mountain locust is believed to have been the most common macroscopic creature of any kind ever to inhabit the planet.
Swarms would occur once every seven to twelve years, emerging from river valleys in the Rockies, sweeping east across the country. The size of the swarms tended to grow when there was less rainand the West had been going through a drought since 1873. Farmers just east of the Rockies began to see a cloud approaching from the west. It was glinting around the edges where the locust wings caught the light of the sun.
People said the locusts descended like a driving snow in winter. They covered everything in their path. They sounded like thunder or a train and blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. Trees bent over with the weight of them. They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path. They ate harnesses off horses and the bark of trees, curtains, clothing that was hung out on laundry lines. They chewed on the handles of farm tools and fence posts and railings. Some farmers tried to scare away the locusts by running into the swarm, and they had their clothes eaten right off their bodies.
Similar swarms occurred in the following years. The farmers became desperate. But by the mid 1880s, the rains had returned, and the swarms died down. Within a few decades, the Rocky Mountain locusts were believed to be extinct. The last two live specimens were collected in 1902, and they're now stored at the Smithsonian.
Poem: "Love's Philosophy" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public Domain.
The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the Ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high Heaven
And the waves clasp one another,
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother,
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of cartoonist Garry Trudeau, born in New York City (1948). He's the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip.
It's the birthday of poet Tess Gallagher, born in Port Angeles, Washington (1943).
It's the birthday of novelist John Gardner, born in Batavia, New York (1933). He's best known for his novel Grendel, a retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster.
And today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, born in Oak Park, Illinois (1899). He went off to fight in World War I when he was just 17. He had bad eyesight, so he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross in Italy. He gave away chocolate and cigarettes to the Italian troops. And just about a month after he got to Italy, he was hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell. He spent weeks in the hospital and then came back home to his parents in Oak Park.
He was one of the first Americans to return from the war, and that made him a kind of celebrity in Oak Park. He gave talks to high school students. He hung around his parents' house until they decided they wanted him out of the house.
He started writing stories for Chicago newspapers and magazines, and then got a job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star and went off to Paris with his wife Hadley. They moved into an apartment in the Latin Quarter. Hemingway liked to give the impression that he was a poor bohemian, but he actually had plenty of money. He and his wife traveled around Europe and went to the horse races and ate in nice restaurants.
He became friends with a lot of writers who were in Paris at the time, Fitzgerald and Joyce and Pound and Gertrude Stein. And he wrote every day, sometimes in his apartment, sometimes in cafés. He wrote about one of those cafés, "It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story."
He wrote in a letter to his father, "I'm trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life acrossnot to just depict lifeor criticize itbut to actually make it alive.
His first collection of short stories, In Our Time, came out in 1925 and the following year, his first big success, The Sun Also Rises. Three years later, A Farewell to Arms came out. By the 1930s, he was one of the best-known writers alive, and young American men tried to act like "Hemingway heroes," speaking in staccato sentences out of the sides of their mouths. By the time he died in 1961, he was one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
Poem: "Acceptance Speech" by Lynn Powell, from The Zones of Paradise. © University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio. Reprinted with permission.
The radio's replaying last night's winners
and the gratitude of the glamorous,
everyone thanking everybody for making everything
so possible, until I want to shush
the faucet, dry my hands, join in right here
at the cluttered podium of the sink, and thank
my mother for teaching me the true meaning of okra,
my children for putting back the growl in hunger,
my husband, primo uomo of dinner, for not
begrudging me this starring role
without all of them, I know this soup
would not be here tonight.
And let me just add that I could not
have made it without the marrow bone, that blood
brother to the broth, and the tomatoes
who opened up their hearts, and the self-effacing limas,
the blonde sorority of corn, the cayenne
and oregano who dashed in
in the nick of time.
Special thanks, as always, to the salt
you know who you areand to the knife,
who revealed the ripe beneath the rind,
the clean truth underneath the dirty peel.
I hope I've not forgotten anyone
oh, yes, to the celery and the parsnip,
those bit players only there to swell the scene,
let me just say: sometimes I know exactly how you feel.
But not tonight, not when it's all
coming to something and the heat is on and
I'm basking in another round
of blue applause.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the painter Edward Hopper, born in Nyack, New York (1882). By the time he was 12, he was already six feet tall. He was skinny, gangly, made fun of by his classmates, painfully shy, and spent much of his time alone drawing.
After he finished art school, he took a trip to Paris and spent almost all of his time there alone, reading or painting. In Paris, he realized that he had fallen in love with light. He said the light in Paris was unlike anything he'd ever seen before. He tried to recreate it in his paintings.
He came back to New York and got a job as an illustrator at an ad agency. He hated the job. In his spare time, he drove around and painted train stations and gas stations and corner saloons. He'd sold only one painting by the time he was 40, but his first major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933 made him famouspaintings with titles such as "Houses by the Railroad," "Room in Brooklyn," "Roofs of Washington Square," "Cold Storage Plant," "Lonely House," and "Girl on Bridge."
He'd also been an illustrator for business magazines, and he became one of the first American painters to paint office scenes. Several of his paintings show office managers surrounded by gorgeous, buxom secretaries, or people working late at the office, sitting at desks high above the city.
He lived and worked in the same walkup apartment in Washington Square from 1913 until 1967. He ate almost every meal of his adult life in a diner. He never rode in a taxi. He loved the theater, but he always sat in the cheap seats. He never had any children with his wife, and he never included a single child in any of his paintings. The closest he came was a painting called "New York Pavements," showing a nun pushing a baby carriage. His painting "Four Lane Road" is his only painting that shows people actually communicating: a woman is yelling at a man.
Edward Hopper said, "Maybe I am slightly inhuman ... All I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house."
Poem: "Curse Of The Cat Woman" by Edward Field, from Counting Myself Lucky. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.
Curse Of The Cat Woman
It sometimes happens
that the woman you meet and fall in love with
is of that strange Transylvanian people
with an affinity for cats.
You take her to a restaurant, say, or a show,
on an ordinary date, being attracted
by the glitter in her slitty eyes and her catlike walk,
and afterwards of course you take her in your arms
and she turns into a black panther
and bites you to death.
Or perhaps you are saved in the nick of time
and she is tormented by the knowledge of her tendency:
That she daren't hug a man
unless she wants to risk clawing him up.
This puts you both in a difficult position panting lovers who are prevented from touching
not by bars but by circumstance:
You have terrible fights and say cruel things
for having the hots does not give you a sweet temper.
One night you are walking down a dark street
And hear the pad-pad of a panther following you,
but when you turn around there are only shadows,
or perhaps one shadow too many.
You approach, calling, "Who's there?"
and it leaps on you.
Luckily you have brought along your sword
and you stab it to death.
And before your eyes it turns into the woman you love,
her breast impaled on your sword,
her mouth dribbling blood saying she loved you
but couldn't help her tendency.
So death released her from the curse at last,
and you knew from the angelic smile on her dead face
that in spite of a life the devil owned,
love had won, and heaven pardoned her.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, Chicago (1888). He was the author of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye.
It's the anniversary of the terrible riot in Detroit in 1967 that marked the beginning of the decline of one of the great manufacturing cities in the country. Detroit, thanks to mass assembly line automobile production, had become one of the great industrial cities in the world. Between 1910 and 1930, the population had grown from about a half million to more than one and a half million, of which many were southern blacks looking for good jobs at the auto factories.
By the '60s, Detroit had one of the highest black populations of any city in the country. Racial tensions were growing. Through the 1950s there were incidents of cross burnings and hate crimes. The Detroit police force was almost entirely white, and Blacks were frequently harassed.
On this night in 1967a hot and muggy nightan all-white squadron of police officers decided to raid a bar in a black neighborhood. There was a party going on in the bar, welcoming home two Vietnam veterans. The police stormed the bar, arrested 85 black men, and started loading them into vans. There was pushing and shoving and shouting. A crowd gathered. People started throwing bottles. Within hours, store fronts had been broken into, and buildings were set on fire. The riot went on for five days. Thousands of National guardsmen were called in, resulting in tanks in the streets.
The National Guard was particularly trigger happy. They fired off more than 150,000 bullets over the course of those five days. Of the 43 people killed in the riot, all but ten were black. Most of them were innocent bystanders. 7,000 people were arrested, 5,000 left homeless, and $50 million in property damage. Whole blocks had gone up in flames. Along 12th Street, the whole neighborhood burned to the ground. Most of that area remained undeveloped for decades.
After the riots, many of the white residents moved to the suburbs. Thousands of homes were abandoned. The city's population plunged from 1.6 million to under a million in just a few years. By 1990, Detroit was one of the poorest cities in America, with one of every three residents living in poverty.
One of the men who got shot the night of the riot was Officer Isaiah McKinnon, one of the only black officers on the Detroit Police force. He had spent twelve hours working riot control and was on his way home when white officers pulled him over and shot at his car, even though he was still in his police uniform. He went on to become the Detroit chief of police in the 1990's.
Poem: "The Committee" by Susan Cataldo, from drenched: Selected Poems of Susan Cataldo 1979-1999. ©. Telephone Books. Reprinted with permission.
There's a committee looking into the air,
my supervisor said,
when someone complained
about our stuffy office.
Can't you just see them up there,
sitting around a conference table,
looking into the air.
That's all. Just looking.
There's a committee looking into the air.
I must get elected to that committee
because I care about the air too
and I would love to look into it,
all of it,
and I would love to look into it
with others also.
We would be this committee,
to look into the air.
People would send us complaints about the air
and we would send memos back to them
describing what we saw when we looked into the air
and if something needed to be done about it
we would fix it.
We would be the committee that looks into the air.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Alexandre Dumas, born in Villers-Cotterêts, France (1802). He wrote swashbuckling adventure novels, The Three Musketeers (1844), and The Count of Monte Cristo. He died before he finished his last book. On his death bed he said, "I shall never know how it all comes out now."
It's the birthday of Robert Graves, born in Wimbledon (1895). He was the author of more than 150 books of fiction, essays, and poetry, and his World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That.
It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayre, in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She met F. Scott Fitzgerald at one of the military dances there in Montgomery. He stood out from the crowd, wearing his Brooks Brothers uniform and his cream-colored boots. Zelda said, "He smelled like new goods." He told her that she looked like the heroine in the novel he was writing.
They went on their first date on this day, her birthday, in 1918. Years later in a letter to Scott, she wrote, "The night you gave me my birthday party... you were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn't I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best."
It's the birthday of mystery novelist John D. MacDonald, born in Sharon, Pennsylvania (1916). He's famous for his novels featuring Travis McGee, a beach-bum detective who lives on a houseboat that he won in a poker game.
MacDonald started reading when he was a kid, after he almost died of scarlet fever. He spent a year in bed. He read all the books in the library. He served in the Army during World War II. He entertained his wife by writing her little stories in his letters, one of which she liked so much that she typed it up and sent it to the magazine Story, where it was published.
John D. MacDonald had four months of severance pay when he came home from the Army, and he spent those four months writing seven days a week, 14 hours a day. By the end of the year, he was making a living selling short stories to pulp fiction magazines.
He used his mystery novels to criticize what he called American junk culture: fast food, bad TV, and suburban development. He said, "I am wary of a lot of things, such as ... time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants ... pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."