Poem: "Chesterfield" by Ned Balbo, from Galileo's Banquet. © Washington Writers' Publishing House. Reprinted with permission.
The brand my mother smoked was Chesterfield
While talking to my father or the phone.
A flared match to the tip, clouds broke apart,
Or puffed out when she spoke. It was an art,
Like any skill, once mastered. When she held
Her prop, imagined elegance infused
Her every gesture lifted from old films
That mesmerized her during the Depression,
Shot "in glorious black-and-white," sleek realms
Of men tragically distant, yet amused
By their own irony; pale heroines
Who wept or else leaned backward to be kissed;
Families with secret griefs, or public sins
Good wives endure... A slow dissolve, to mist.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1942 that the Battle of Stalingrad began, which many historians think of as the turning point of World War II. Hitler had already conquered all of Europe except for England, and he began the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 with an army of four million men. The Germans reached Stalingrad on this day in 1942 and flew more than 2,000 bombing raids in just the first day of the battle. They hit oil storage tanks that flowed into the river and caught fire and laid siege to the city. It went on for months.
It's been called the most terrible battle the world has ever known, and in the end the Russians won, thanks to the approach of winter. The German troops were not prepared for fighting in below zero weather. By February of 1943, all the German soldiers had surrendered or been killed, the first defeat of Hitler's army.
It's the birthday of Annie Proulx, born in Norwich, Connecticut (1935). She burst on to the literary scene with her novel Postcards in 1992 and The Shipping News in 1993. She was in her late 50s by that time. She said she didn't regret becoming a writer later than most people, because she knew more about life than she had when she was younger, and because her freelance writing jobs had taught her how to research almost anything. To write Postcards, she traveled back and forth across the country, stopping in all the places where her main character, a homeless person, lived and worked.
She finished that novel and then came upon a map of Newfoundland. She explored the island, looked at maps, and the end result was her novel The Shipping News, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
For her book Accordion Crimes, she studied a whole stack of court cases involving accordions. She discovered that it was possible to hide money in an accordion, and that fact became a centerpiece of the novel.
She now lives in Wyoming and writes about ranchers. Her book That Old Ace in the Hole came out a few years ago.
It's the birthday of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, born in Waukegan, Illinois (1920). He's the author of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451 and other books.
As a boy, he read Edgar Allen Poe and The Wizard of Oz. And when he was 12, a traveling carnival came to town, and he met a magician named Mr. Electrico who talked to him about reincarnation and immortality. Bradbury said, "I don't know if I believe in previous lives, I'm not sure I can live forever. But that young boy believed in both, and I have let him have his way. He has written all my stories and books for me."
And it's the birthday of Dorothy Parker, born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey (1893). She wrote only a few books of poetry and short stories, much of it collected in The Portable Dorothy Parker, which has been in print since 1944.
Dorothy Parker said, "I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true."
Poem: "Lucinda Matlock" by Edgar Lee Masters. Reprinted with permission.
I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you
It takes life to love Life.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the dancer, choreographer, and film director Gene Kelly, born in Pittsburgh (1912). He made his film debut with Judy Garland in 1942 in For Me and My Gal. He was best known perhaps for his dance in the mud puddle in Singin' in the Rain in 1952.
It was on this day in 2000 that 51 million Americans sat down in front of their TV sets to watch the final two-hour episode of a game show called Survivor, a show which had taken 16 very different people, put them on a deserted island where they had to live in the rough, compete as teams for prizes, and each week vote one person off the island. The last person remaining would get one million dollars.
Each one-hour episode was edited down from more than 100 hours of video. The audience was fascinated by all of the back-stabbing that went on, the alliances, the double-crosses and the betrayals and watched in horror as the most treacherous and heartless contestant won the prize.
And today is the birthday of the poet Edgar Lee Masters, born in Garnett, Kansas (1869). He was one of the first writers to portray the American small town as a place of terrible secrets, lies, and scandals.
Masters grew up in two towns in the Illinois Corn Belt, Lewistown and Petersburg, along the Spoon River. He became a lawyer and moved to Chicago. He was a partner with Clarence Darrow. He met Carl Sandburg, who was writing for a socialist newspaper, and Masters got involved in the Chicago literary scene. He published a series of books of poems and several plays.
One day, Edgar Lee Masters' mother came to visit, and he spent a day with her talking about all the characters he remembered from the towns where he grew up. His mother told him all the gossip that she knew about those people. He put her on the train and went back home and started writing Spoon River Anthology.
He had recently read a book of Greek poems written in the form of fictional epitaphs about famous dead men, and so he got the idea for a book of poems written in the voices of the dead in a graveyard.
He published Spoon River Anthology in 1915 under a pseudonym. He was worried it would have an effect on his law practice, and he was right to worry. The book was considered very scandalous at the time, but it became a best-seller. It went through 70 printings, and it allowed Masters to retire from his law practice. The people in the towns that he had grown up in were angry at him for decades. It took more than 50 years before the town where he went to high school was able to put Spoon River Anthology in the town library.
Poem: "To Daffodils" by Robert Herrick. Reprinted with permission.
Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Until the hasting day
But to the evensong;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.
We have short time to stay as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Robert Herrick, born in London (1591), who gave us the lines:
"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying,
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying."
It's the birthday of a woman who made one of the great literary comebacks of the 20th Century, the English novelist Jean Rhys, born in Dominica, in the West Indies (1894). She published several novels, including one entitled Good Morning, Midnight. It came out in 1939.
She stopped writing during World War II and vanished from public life. Many of her readers assumed that she had died. And then in 1958, the BBC decided to make a movie of that novel. They put out an ad, asking for information about Jean Rhys, and she responded and was inspired to start writing again. And in 1966, 27 years after her previous novel, she published Wide Sargasso Sea.
It's the birthday of short story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). His mother was a translator. She translated many English and American writers into Spanish including Hawthorne, Woolf and Melville. And Borges was encouraged to read English from an early age. He fell in love with Dickens, Twain, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
He studied in Europe, moved back to Argentina, and got a job in a library. He worked his way up to be director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. He was able to do his work in just one hour every morning so he could spend the rest of his day wandering through the stacks and reading and writing.
It's the birthday of the novelist A.S. Byatt, born Antonia Susan Drabble, in Sheffield, England (1936). She grew up in a literary family. For 25 years she worked as a teacher. She was a mother. She wrote a few novels on the side, none of which sold well. Finally, when she was 48 years old, she quit her job, devoted herself to writing, and the result was her novel Possession, which came out in 1990. It won the Booker Prize and became a bestseller in Great Britain and the United States.
It's the birthday of the novelist Oscar Hijuelos, born in New York City (1951). His novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1989. It's the story of the Castillo brothers who came from Cuba to the United States to become jazz musicians. Hijuelos grew up playing in bands himself, and he said he tried to make his novel improvisational, like a series of songs. His novel A Simple Habana Melody came out a couple of years ago.
Poem: "The House on Broughton Street" by Mary Ann Larkin, from The Coil of the Skin. ©Washington Writers' Publishing House. Reprinted with permission.
The House on Broughton Street
Always it was a summer afternoon
I see my mother climbing the stairs
to the porch
My grandmother waiting
tiny but formidable
She'd been expecting her
the sisters smiling
My mother in her grey crepe
the white gloves she always wore
Her hair and eyes dark
among these fair, freckled people
My father shyly presenting her
something of his own
Shuffling, they made room for her
and she took her place among them
and between them
grew something new
Marie, they came to say,
This is Grant's Marie
She seldom spoke
but rested among them
a harbor she'd found
My father gave her a carnelian ring
surrounded by silver hearts
Before Grandma died
she gave my mother the diamond brooch
My mother brought with her
fabrics that glistened
a touch of velvet
sometimes a feather
They noticed the light
in the rooms where she sat
And even thirty years later
after the lost jobs and the babies
after the mortgages and the wars
what they remembered most
was the way my mother
set aside her gloves
She was buried on Good Friday
There was a blizzard
After the funeral
the youngest uncle
read "Murder in the Cathedral" aloud
I have the carnelian ring now
the diamond brooch
I wear satin when I can
and I am attracted to old houses
where the light passes
across the porch to the windows, making
of the space between, a grace
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1944 that Paris was liberated from four years of Nazi rule. So many of the major cities in Europe were destroyed by bombing during the war, but Paris remained relatively unscathed, in part because the Nazis had marched into the city unchallenged, and the French, at least the French in Paris, had not put up much resistance. Many Parisians tried to be as accommodating as possible to the Germans. Most of the theaters and music halls, restaurants and cafés were open for Nazi soldiers and officers.
After D-Day, many people hoped the Allies would liberate Paris, but Eisenhower made a decision to go around the city. He didn't want to get bogged down there. And then, as the Allies got closer, the Germans ordered a 9:00 p.m. curfew on the city. The Parisians had not revolted against the German occupation, but the idea of a curfew deeply offended them, and the Paris police began collaborating with the French resistance. Fighting broke out in the streets. Hitler ordered the city be destroyed, but the German commander refused the order, and a division of French troops entered the city on this day in 1944.
Among the war correspondents was Ernest Hemingway, who said on this day, "I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in the world."
It's the birthday of the novelist Brian Moore, born in Belfast (1921).
It's the birthday of the novelist Frederick Forsyth, Ashford, England (1938). He's the author of thrillers such as The Day of the Jackal.
It's the birthday of Leonard Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1918).
It's the birthday of the novelist Martin Amis, born in Oxford (1949).
Poem: "The Angel's Retirement Speech" by Annie Farnsworth, from Bodies of Water, Bodies of Light. © Annie Farnsworth. Reprinted with permission.
The Angel's Retirement Speech
My advice to those of you
just starting out: don't expect too much,
or to make a big splash.
They're all so jaded now, what with all
this technology. Not like the old days,
when all you had to do
was throw your voice on the wind,
cry tears through a statue, maybe just appear
in times of great stress, looking your most
No, now they've got
their own miracles, like cell phones
and videos - who needs a visitation
when they've got their own apparitions
appearing and disappearing, all night
on Extended Basic Cable?
With advances like that,
a voice from heaven is not all that impressive,
nor the sight of winged creatures hovering
in a golden shaft of light.
I guess I would say
just stick to the basics, the stuff
that always works. Like birthing babies,
and healing the folks the doctors thought hopeless.
Maybe pull the stalled car off the train tracks
at the very last second. When things look grim
give 'em the old "Jesus' face in a potato chip," or
maybe a squirrel's nest that becomes, at dusk,
the spitting image of St. Francis in profile.
It might sometimes seem
like a thankless job but when you
do it right, just watch them pack up
for a road trip pilgrimage
with their picnic baskets and instamatics.
Watch their eyes widened in innocence again,
to see the Mary Magdalene in a cloud formation,
or the Enquirer's MOSES ZUCCHINI.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Julio Cortazar, born in Brussels, Belgium to Argentine parents (1914).
It's the birthday of the novelist Zona Gale, born in Portage, Wisconsin (1874), whose best known novel was Miss Lulu Bett.
It's the birthday of art collector and patron Peggy Guggenheim, born in New York City (1898).
It's the birthday of the inventor Joseph Montgolfier, born in Annonay, France (1740). He and his brother Etienne were in the paper manufacturing business. And one night watching the fire in his fireplace, Joseph wondered what caused the sparks to rise. He made a bag out of silk and lit a fire under the opening and watched it rise. He thought it was smoke that lifted it. He didn't know it was simply heated air.
So the Montgolfier brothers decided to build a contraption for flight. At that time the only creatures who had ever flown were birds and insects. But in 1783, they made a huge bag out of cloth and paper, held the opening over a fire, and inflated the bag to a height of 110 feet. When it was full, they released it, and it rose more than 3,000 feet into the air. Then they sent up a balloon with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster in a basket under the balloon, with the king and queen of France watching. The balloon landed, and the animals were okay.
So on November 21, 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent up the first human beings to take flight. Deciding not to do it themselves, they sent up two volunteers, one of whom was a major in the French army. A half a million people came to watch in Paris.
One of the people watching was Benjamin Franklin, and when someone asked him what practical purpose this contraption might have, Benjamin Franklin said, "What use is a newborn baby?"
Poem: "Sleep" by Wesley McNair, from Fire. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.
The young dog would like to know
why we sit so long in one place
intent on a box that makes the same
noises and has no smell whatever.
Get out! Get out! we tell him
when he asks us by licking the back
of our hand, which has small hairs,
almost like his. Other times he finds us
motionless with papers in our lap,
or at a desk looking into a humming
square of light. Soon the dog understands
we are not looking, exactly, but sleeping
with our eyes open, then goes to sleep
himself. Is it us he cries out to,
moving his legs somewhere beyond
the rooms where we spend our lives?
We don't think to ask, upset
as we are in the end with the dog,
who has begun throwing the old,
shabby coat of himself down on every
floor or rug in the apartment, sleep,
we say, all that damn dog does is sleep.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, born in Stuuttgart (1770). He started out as a theologian, particularly interested in how Christianity is a religion based on opposites: sin and salvation, earth and heaven, finite and infinite. He believed that Jesus had emphasized love as the chief virtue because love can bring about the marriage of opposites.
Hegel eventually went beyond theology and began to argue that the subject of philosophy is reality, and he hoped to describe how and why human beings create communities and governments, make war, destroy each other's societies, and then build themselves up to do it all over again.
He came up with the concept of Dialectic, the idea that all human progress is driven by the conflict between opposites, that each political movement is imperfect and so gives rise to a counter movement which takes controlwhich is also imperfectand gives rise to yet another counter movement, and so on to infinity.
It's the birthday of the novelist Theodore Dreiser, born in Terre Haute, Indiana (1871). He arrived in Chicago as a youth, and became a newspaper reporter. As a reporter, he wrote his first novel, his great masterpiece, in just a year. Sister Carrie, was about a chorus girl who becomes a success, and it came out in 1900.
It's the birthday of Mother Theresa, born in the city of Skopje, Macedonia (1910), from a family of ethnic Albanians. Her father was murdered when she was seven. The family fell into poverty. She was educated by Irish missionary nuns and went to Dublin to train for missionary work. She was sent to Calcutta where she founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, devoted to anyone "unwanted, unloved, and uncared for."
Mother Theresa became famous and when journalists came to talk to her, she wouldn't give them an interview unless they spent a day working among the poor. When the pope gave her a white Lincoln Continental limousine, she sold it without ever taking a ride in it. And when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, she asked the committee to skip the awards dinner and give the cost of the dinner, (about $7,000) to the poor.
It's the birthday of the novelist C.S. Forester, born in Cairo (1899), to British parents. He created the character Horatio Hornblower, an English naval hero who is heroic but also introverted, suffers from sea-sickness, is a fanatic about efficiency and discipline, and hates the poetry of Wordsworth.
Poem: "To Anthea, Who May Command Him Anything" by Robert Herrick. Reprinted with permission.
To Anthea, Who May Command Him Anything
Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.
A heart as soft, a heart as kind,
A heart as sound and free
As in the whole world thou canst find,
That heart I'll give to thee.
Bid that heart stay, and it will stay
To honour thy decree:
Or bid it languish quite away,
And 't shall do so for thee.
Bid me to weep, and I will weep
While I have eyes to see:
And, having none, yet I will keep
A heart to weep for thee.
Bid me despair, and I'll despair
Under that cypress-tree:
Or bid me die, and I will dare
E'en death to die for thee.
Thou art my life, my love, my heart,
The very eyes of me:
And hast command of every part
To live and die for thee.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is believed to be the date when the Roman Empire fell in 474 A.D., when the Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by a barbarian. What they called barbarians, we might call Germans or Swedes. One tribe, the Goths, had originated in Sweden, migrated to the Black Sea, and split into two groups, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths. They were driven out of their own homeland by the Huns who had been advancing across Asia from the east. And so 200,000 Visigoths migrated across the Danube into the Roman Empire in 374 A.D. and were tolerated there by the Romans. But then the Romans tried to disarm them, and there was a rebellion. The emperor sent Roman troops into battle at Adrianople, and the Visigoths won and destroyed two-thirds of the Roman army. Their victory was thanks in part to the fact that the Visigoths had developed a horse's saddle with stirrups, which made the horses much more maneuverable.
Other Germanic tribes then began to move into the Roman Empire, the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Angles, and the Saxons. Rome was sacked by the Goths in 410 and again by Vandals in 455. The Roman Empire was in shambles, and the emperor was deposed on this day in 474 A.D.
Edward Gibbon put forward a theory about the fall of Rome, arguing that the Christian Church was to blame, that after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the best and the brightest became leaders of the church rather than going into the military or into the government.
Another theory says that the aqueducts, which carried the water supply, were lined with lead, and so the Romans slowly went crazy. One of the more recent theories is that the Roman army had been infiltrated by the barbarians themselves, and so when the army was ordered to attack the barbarians, they, of course, refused.
It's the birthday of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born in Frankfurt (1749). He spent about 50 years writing his masterpiece Faust, about the man who sells his soul to the devil but gets into heaven anyway.
Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."
It's the birthday of the novelist and playwright Robertson Davies, born in Thamesville, Ontario (1913). He's best known as the author of the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders.