Poem: "The Rites of Manhood," by Alden Nowlan from What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread (Nineties Press).
The Rites of Manhood
It's snowing hard enough that the taxis aren't running.
I'm walking home, my night's work finished,
long after midnight, with the whole city to myself,
when across the street I see a very young American sailor
standing over a girl who's kneeling on the sidewalk
and refuses to get up although he's yelling at her
to tell him where she lives so he can take her there
before they both freeze. The pair of them are drunk
and my guess is he picked her up in a bar
and later they got separated from his buddies
and at first it was great fun to play at being
an old salt at liberty in a port full of women with
hinges on their heels, but by now he wants only to
find a solution to the infinitely complex
problem of what to do about her before he falls into
the hands of the police or the shore patrol
and what keeps this from being squalid is
what's happening to him inside:
if there were other sailors here
it would be possible for him
to abandon her where she is and joke about it
later, but he's alone and the guilt can't be
divided into small forgettable pieces;
he's finding out what it means
to be a man and how different it is
from the way that only hours ago he imagined it.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Dennis Brutus, born in Harare in what was then Rhodesia (1924). He wrote Sirens, Knuckles and Bones (1962). He served a sentence of eighteen months of hard labor on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela.
It's the birthday of Stefan Zweig, born in Vienna (1881). He wrote a dozen biographies, short stories, and a memoir, The World of Yesterday (1943), in which he wrote: "In Berlin I sat in cafés with dead drunks and homosexuals and morphine addicts; very proudly I shook the hand of a rather well-known convicted con artist. All the characters in realist novels I could not bring myself to believe in crowded the small rented rooms and cafés in which I sat, and the more terrible their reputations were, the more interested I was in becoming personally acquainted with them."
It's the birthday of William Blake, born in London (1757). He wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), ignored in their own time and forgotten for decades afterward. He lived in poverty, ignorant of the rest of the literary world of London, scraping out a living from his trade as an engraver, and writing and drawing under inspiration he considered divine. He said about his long poem Milton, "I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time, without pre-meditation and even against my will." He lived in a world of dreams and visions. One day he and his wife were sitting naked in their garden, reciting to each other passages from Paradise Lost. Blake was not embarrassed when a visitor came by. He said, "Come in! It's only Adam and Eve, you know."
Poem:"Survival Skills," and "Dutch," by Kay Ryan from Say Uncle (Grove Press).
Here is the virtue
in not looking up:
you will be the one
who finds the overhang
out of the sun
and something for a cup.
You will rethink meat;
you will know you have
to eat and will eat.
Despair and hope you keep
remote. You will not
think much about the boat
that sank or other boats.
When you can, you sleep.
You can go on nearly forever.
If you ever are delivered
you are not delivered.
You know now, you were
always a survivor.
Much of life
by the thumbs
up-ended to the
in town, little
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis, born in Belfast, Ireland, (1898), the author of the children's series about the land of Narnia. He also wrote The Screwtape Letters (1941), in which he wrote, "The safest road to Hell is the gradual onethe gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts." He was a confident Oxford philosopher, not at all prepared to find himself a Christian convert. To his friend Owen Barfield he wrote: "Terrible things have happened to me. The 'Spirit' or 'Real I' is showing an alarming tendency to becoming much more personal and is taking the offensive, and behaving just like God. You'd better come on Monday at the latest or I may have entered a monastery." He said, "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."
It's the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, born in Germantown, Pennsylvania (1832), but brought up in Concord, Massachusetts, among the Transcendentalists, of which her father was one. She's remembered now for Little Women, which she didn't care for at all and found the writing of tedious. In her journal she wrote, "I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing." She much preferred writing lurid, Gothic stories, about women who sold their souls to the devil, and governesses who looked sweet and innocent by daylight but who ruined the souls of little children by night, which she published under several pen names. Her publishers offered her more money if she would agree to publish under her own name, but she could not bring herself to embarrass her father and his colleague, Ralph Waldo Emerson. To a friend, she wrote: "To have had Mr. Emerson for an intellectual god all one's life is to be invested with a chain armor of propriety."
Poem: "Antimatter," by Russell Edson from The Tunnel (Field Translations Series).
On the other side of a mirror there's an inverse world, where the in-
sane go sane; where bones climb out of the earth and recede to the first
slime of love.
And in the evening the sun is just rising.
Lovers cry because they are a day younger, and soon childhood robs
them of their pleasure.
In such a world there is much sadness which, of course, is joy...
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the playwright David Alan Mamet, born in Chicago, Illinois (1947), who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988). He said the revelation of twentieth century drama is "that you can apply the Aristotelian unities to a microcosm, to a very, very small human interchange... It [doesn't] have to be about conquering France. It can be about who did or did not turn on the gas on the stove."
It's the birthday of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island (1874), author of the Anne of Green Gables books.
It's the birthday of Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, in Florida, Missouri (1835), who wrote Life on the Mississippi (1883), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and his own favorite, The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1891). He was cynical and irreverent, but he had a tender spot for cats. There were always kittens in the house, and he gave them names like "Sin" and "Sour Mash." "Mamma has morals," said his daughter Suzy, "and Papa has cats." He swore constantly and without shame. His streams of profanity broke his wife's heart on a daily basis. One day he cut himself shaving, and she heard a string of oaths from the bathroom. She resolved to move him to repentance, and she repeated back to him all the bad words he had just said. He smiled at her and shook his head. "You have the words, Livy," he said, "but you'll never learn the tune." After he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he found himself awash in cash, which he invested in a typesetting machine that was very complicated and very ingenious and demanded more and more investment and in the end would not work. He had to declare bankruptcy, and he decided to go on a worldwide lecture tour, the proceeds of which he would use to pay back all of his creditors. His visits to Africa and Asia convinced him that a God who allowed Christians to believe that they were better than savages was a God he wanted no part of. He was a funny man and is remembered for his humorous sayings. He said, "It is better to keep you mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt." He also said, "Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
It's the birthday of Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin, Ireland (1667), the author of Tales of a Tub, and Gulliver's Travels. He once said, about a book he admired, "That is as well said as if I had said it myself."
Poem:"The Well Dressed Man with a Beard," by Wallace Stevens from Collected Poems. (Knopf).
The Well Dressed Man with a Beard
After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.
If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm, even
No greater than a cricket's horn, no more
Than a thought to be rehearsed all day, a speech
Of the self that must sustain itself on speech,
One thing remaining, infallible, would be
Enough. Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart,
Green in the body, out of a petty phrase,
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed:
The form on the pillow humming while one sleeps,
he aureole above the humming house . . .
It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.
Literary and Historical Notes:
On this day in 1913, the first gas station in the United States opened at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It sold just thirty gallons of gas the first day it was open, at twenty-seven cents a gallon. It was a brick building with a little pagoda on top, and it offered free air for tires, restrooms, and twenty-four hour service.
On this day in 1860, the first installment of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations was published in the journal All the Year Round.
On this day in 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first story about Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual.
On this day in 1859, a Norwegian immigrant wrote from California to his mother Trondhjem, "I am now living in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and you cannot imagine a more romantic country, rich as it is in the most magnificent scenery. I wish you could make a trip up here in the spring and see the flowers that cover every inch of ground... On Sunday, which is here the busiest trading day in the week, you often see the hardy miners on their way to the grocery store with bouquets of these flowers in their hands. Arriving at the store, each miner compares his bouquet with those of the others, and if there is a lady present, which is rarely the case, she is immediately chosen as judge of the flowers. But the prize for the finest bouquet is, it grieves me to report, whisky..."
It's the birthday of Woody Allen, born in Brooklyn in 1935. As a child he was very shy, he hated school and spent most of his free time alone in his room practicing magic tricks and his clarinet. He went to NYU where he failed his Motion Picture Production class, but in 1978, Allen's film Annie Hall won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actress. He said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying."
It's the birthday of American detective novelist Rex Stout, born in Noblesville, Indiana (1886). He wrote over 70 novels, and 46 of them featured Nero Wolfe, an eccentric detective who weighs almost 300 pounds.
Poem: "Creative Writing," by Michael Van Walleghen from Blue Tango (University of Illinois Press).
One of my students
has written a story:
It's the end of the world
and an alien spaceship
is circling the planet
trying to make contact.
Hello? Anybody down there?
But it's just as they suspect.
After the atmosphere ignites
nothing. Not a whimper. Even
our germs are dead. Now
they'll have to start over.
What a drag! Other planets
in the galaxy are doing fine
but you and I, the human race,
we just can't get it somehow.
Perhaps reptiles might work
or something underwater…
And so it goes for fifty pages
fifty million years in fact,
one dimwit, evolutionary dud
after another until finally
Homo Erectus! our old friend
back again. Talk about irony!
The best minds in the universe,
eon upon eon of experiment
and here we are, right back
where we started, doomed
perfectly ignorant, oblivious
to art, language, metaphor...
yet hearing voices nonetheless,
the genius of creation itself
mumbling at us from a cloud.
So what can we do after all
but sweat blood, struggle,
learn to write it down
never mind the spelling
the ribbon without ink
the lords of the universe
are circling the planet
like moths around a desk lamp
and the whole dorm is asleep.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of T. Coraghessan Boyle, born in Peekskill, New York (1948), the author of Water Music (1980), World's End (1987) and other books.
It's the birthday of Maria Callas, born Maria Anna Sophia Cecilia Kalogeropoulos, in Brooklyn, New York (1923). Another opera singer said after she died, "Her use of words, the vitality of language in her singing, was amazing. She was hellbent on her own destruction, and broke all the rules of singing. But so what? That's why we're still talking about her."
It's the birthday of Nikos Kazantzakis, born on Crete (1885). He wrote Zorba the Greek (1946), and The Report to Greco (1961), in which he describes himself as a young man arriving at a monastery in the Sinai Desert, and asking the abbot if he can make a retreat in this holy place, where he will be sure to hear the voice of God. The abbot tells him, "All voices can be heard here in the desert. And especially two which are difficult to tell apart: God's and the devil's."
It's the birthday of Ruth Draper, born in New York City (1884). She wrote her own one-woman shows and performed them for forty years. Few people have ever tried reviving any of the monologues she wrote, because no one who has heard her do them thinks they can perform them as well as she did.
It's the birthday of Dr. Joseph Bell, born in Edinburgh (1837), one of the models for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character, Sherlock Holmes. He said that physicians should be able to diagnose diseases without ever touching the patient.
Poem:"The Altar," by Charles Simic from Night Picnic (Harcourt).
The plastic statue of the Virgin
On top of a bedroom dresser
With a blackened mirror
From a bad-dream grooming salon.
Two pebbles from the grave of a rock star,
A small, grinning windup monkey,
A bronze Egyptian coin
And a red movie-ticket stub.
A splotch of sunlight on the framed
Communion photograph of a boy
With the eyes of someone
Who will drown in a lake real soon.
An altar dignifying the god of chance.
What is beautiful, it cautions,
Is found accidentally and not sought after.
What is beautiful is easily lost.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Anna Freud, born in Vienna, Austria (1895), the author of books and articles about the psychology of children. She was Sigmund Freud's youngest child, and he was closer to her than to any of his other children. She was wild and joyful as a little girl; when she was four, her father wrote about her, "Anna has become downright beautiful through naughtiness." As an adult, she ran schools in Austria and England whose students were orphaned or made homeless in the Second World War; she said their guardians brought them to her because she encouraged them to speak and act boldly. She inscribed one of her books to her father, "Writing books: a defense against danger from inside and outside."
On this day in 1894 Robert Louis Stevenson died at Valima, his house on Samoa. He was working on a novel called The Weir at Hermiston, which critics said would have been his best if he'd had time to finish it.
It's the birthday of Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in Berdyczew, Poland (1857). He wrote Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904). He was born and raised hundreds of miles from the ocean, and didn't see the Mediterranean until he was fifteen, but he made his way to France and shipped out for Martinique before he was twenty. When he was examined for his Master's Certificate in the British Merchant Marine, the examiner was so astonished at the thought of certifying a Polish sailor that the interview never made any real progress. He sailed to India, the Congo, Malaysia, and Borneo, most of which appeared later in his sea-faring novels, and he smuggled arms, survived shipwreck, and contracted malarial gout; most of which appeared later in his novels. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, wasn't published until he was 36. At about that time, his uncle left him a large fortune, and he married, moved to a farm in Kent, and devoted himself to writing. He never went to sea again.
It's the birthday of Mary Lamb, born in London (1763), Charles Lamb's older sister. Charles served as Mary's guardian after, in a psychotic rage, Mary stabbed their mother with a table-knife. She spent the rest of her life either in his care or in and out of various institutions, but she and her brother wrote the childhood classic Tales from Shakespeare. Mary wrote the comedies and the histories, and Charles wrote the tragedies.
It's the birthday of Gilbert Stuart, born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island (1755). He painted the portrait of George Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill, and he also made portraits of every other person of any stature in the capital at that time. He kept his subjects amused with witty stories as he worked so their expressions would stay lively, but it didn't work on George Washington; he just wasn't interested.
Poem:"In The End," and "After," by Lucille Broderson from Beware. (Spout Press).
In The End
All that last day at the cabin,
the lawnmower held you up, you
who could barely stand.
You rammed and rammed the mower
into the raspberry thicket
until we had lawn
where we didn't need it,
didn't want it.
That night, holding your night pail,
your hand went limp. The warm yellow
flowed onto the pine floor, between the planks.
Your teeth clenched. You wailed, a high keening wail.
Once the sounds that came from your lips
were words. When you'd nick a finger<
or bump a shin, you'd glare at me, say,
I'd better not get really sick,
you'd never be there.
Then the cancer grew in your brain
and each day you became less and less,
and I was there. Surprised, but I was there.
You were my little boy then, feet wide apart,
rolling around the house in a toddler's gait.
How I loved nuzzling your neck,
squeezing your shoulders. For days
I lay in your arms, sobbing.
You held me tight, your eyes wide,
no change at all on your face.
The eaves sag on the house,
the dog grays,
its eyes film over,
there are lumps on its legs.
It doesn't get you up in the morning.
Even your daughter's love
for you, her Daddy, goes.
You die and she looks at her mother
for the first time.
You leave and your clothes
hang untouched for a year.
On a hanger, a suitcoat with a shirt under it,
a tie folded in at the neck.
Your wife leans against it, crying.
Now your son wears it,
feels comfortable, he says.
He's seen your bankbook, knows
how much money you left.
Your wife raises her face
to another man, wants more from him
than he can ever give.
There's no end to her yearning.
Touching, touching, that's all she wants.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of one of the most prolific writers ever, Robert Payne, born in Cornwall, England (1911). He wrote The Mountain and the Stars (1937), and hundreds of other books, many under other names. He taught poetry and shipbuilding in China, became an authority on Indian art, wrote biographies and novels, and made English translations of Boris Pasternak and Søren Kierkegaard. He worked on five or six books at a time, and got most of his work done in the wee hours of the morning, between two and eight. He was asked how he had come to write so much, and he looked surprised and said, "If you write three or four pages a day, in a month you have one hundred pages."
It's the birthday of Samuel Butler, born in Nottinghamshire, England (1835). He wrote The Way of All Flesh (1903) and Erehwon (1872), which is "nowhere" spelled backwards.
It's the birthday of Thomas Carlyle, born in Dumfriesshire, Scotland (1795). He wrote The History of the French Revolution, and biographies of Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great. He formed a close friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and took him to Scotland when Emerson traveled to the British Isles. Emerson looked at the poor ground studded with stones and asked Carlyle what could be grown in that soil. "We grow men," said Carlyle.