Poem: "Antilamentation" by Dorianne Laux. Reprinted with permission.
Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don't regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the livingroom couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You've walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You've traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don't bother remembering
any of it. Let's stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Georges Simenon, born in Liége, Belgium (1903). He's one of the most prolific writers of all time, best known for his detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret. He wrote over 400 books, which sold more than 1.4 billion copies from 1935 to 1997.He quit school when he was sixteen to take care of his ailing mother who died within the year. Then he worked at a bakery and a bookstore before getting a job at the local newspaper. He published his first novel when he was just seventeen years old. He later said, "I wanted to be not just myself, so young and insignificant, but all people, those of the land and of the sea, the blacksmith, the gardener, the bricklayer, and all those to be found on the different rungs of the ... social ladder."
He wrote spy stories, detective thrillers and romance novels, churning them out at a rate of at least ten pages per day. By the time he was twenty-five he was rich enough to have a chauffeur and own a yacht. He wanted to write serious fiction, too, and began submitting short stories to a literary magazine in Paris, but they were all rejected. One time, the writer Colette wrote him a note saying, "You are too literary. You must not be literary. Suppress all the literature and it will work." Simenon later said it was the most useful advice he'd ever gotten in his life.
Simenon began traveling throughout Europe on his yacht, gathering materials for novels. In 1930, he published his first Inspector Maigret novel, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett.
Simenon said, "What you have not absorbed by the time you reach the age of eighteen you will never absorb. It is finished. You will be able to develop what you have absorbed. You will be able to make something or nothing at all of it, but your time for absorption is over and for the rest of your life you will be branded by your childhood."
It's the birthday of religion historian Elaine Pagels, born in Palo Alto, California (1943). She wrote about early Christian heretics in her book The Gnostic Gospels (1979).
It's the birthday of journalist Lawrence Weschler, born in Van Nuys, California (1952). He's the author of Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder (1995), and Boggs: A Comedy of Values (1999) about an artist who specializes in drawing pictures of money.
Poem: "You" by C.K. Stead from The Red Tram. © Auckland University Press, New Zealand. Reprinted with permission.
Our friends' wedding:
I'd lied, called it a funeral
to get army leave
so I could be with you.
It was surprise, a present
and your blush of pleasure
cheered me like a crowd.
So here we are on the step
above 'the happy couple'
who will one day divorce-
looking into the future
which is now.
Ten friends together
in that photograph.
Fifty years on
and four are dead.
Who will be next?
Who will be last
and put out the light?
It's time to tell you again
how much I loved the girl
who blushed her welcome.
Forgive my trespasses.
Stay close. Hold my hand.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate romantic love. Every February florists in the United States import several million pounds of roses from South America. About thirty-six million boxes of chocolates will be given as gifts today.
The holiday comes, in part, from the ancient Romans' holiday honoring Juno, the goddess of women and marriage, on the night before the Feast of Lupercalia. Roman girls would put slips of paper with their names on them into a clay jar, and the boys would choose their partner for the festival by taking a slip from the jar. This was one of the few times girls and boys were allowed to socialize, and the dancing and games often evolved into courtship and marriage.
Tradition has it that Valentine's Day as we know it began sometime in the middle of the third century. Claudius II of Rome was waging several wars and needed to recruit more soldiers for his armies. He thought that many men were reluctant to join because they didn't want to leave their wives and families, and so he temporarily banned engagements and marriages. Saint Valentine was working as a priest at the time and he and his partner Saint Marius broke the law and secretly married couples in small, candlelit rooms, whispering the ceremonial rites. Eventually Saint Valentine was caught and sentenced to death. While awaiting his punishment he would talk with the young daughter of the prison guard whose father allowed her to visit occasionally. Saint Valentine was killed on February 14, 269 A.D., but he had left a note for the guard's daughter, signed, "Love from your Valentine."
One of the first people in the history of western literature to publish love poems that he'd written to a specific person was the Roman poet Catullus, who was writing around 50 B.C. He fell in love with an older married woman from a powerful family and wrote a series of poems to her calling her by the name "Lesbia."
The man who invented the love sonnet was the Italian poet Petrarch, who fell in love with a woman he called Laura the first time he saw her at church in 1327. They never had a relationship, but he wrote more than 300 love sonnets to her.
Fiction writers have been inspired by love as well. While he was working on his novel Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wrote dozens of letters to his lover Louise Colet, describing the writing process. But he also wrote some letters just to tell her how much he missed her. In one letter he wrote, "Twelve hours ago we were still together, and at this very moment yesterday I was holding you in my arms. ... Now the night is soft and warm; I can hear the great tulip tree under my window rustling in the wind, and when I lift my head I see the moon reflected in the river. Your little slippers are in front of me as I write; I keep looking at them."
The novelist Vita Sackville-West was inspired by her love affair with Virginia Woolf to write her novel Seducers in Exile (1924). In the middle of that affair, Sackville-West wrote to Woolf, "I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase. ... But oh my dear, I can't be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that."
Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn't write much literature in her lifetime, just a novel and a few short stories, but some of her letters to her husband read like love poems.
She once wrote: "I look down the tracks and see you comingand out of every haze and mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me. Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn't see or hear or feel or thinkor liveI love you so, and I'm never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night."
Poem: "Being" by Linda Gregg from In the Middle Distance. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.
The woman walks up the mountain
and then down. She wades into the sea
and out. Walks to the well,
pulls up a bucket of water
and goes back into the house.
She hangs wet clothes.
Takes clothes back to fold them.
Every evening she crochets
from six until dark.
Birds, flowers, stars. Her rabbit lives
in an empty donkey pen. The sea is out
there are far as the stars.
No one there. She may not believe
in anything. Not know
what she is doing. Every morning
she waters the geranium plant.
And the leaves smell like lemons.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of astronomer Galileo Galilei, born in Pisa, Italy (1564). By the time he was in his forties, he had made a decent name for himself as a scientist and an inventor. He'd developed the idea for the pendulum clock. He developed the hydrostatic balance which weighed precious metals in both air and water. He discovered that all objects, regardless of their weight, fall at the same speed through a vacuum. Though many doubted this discovery, he proved it by dropping objects of different weights from the tower of Pisa, proving that they would land at the same time.
But despite all these discoveries Galileo still hadn't made it big. He was sick of working at a university. He wrote to a friend at the time, "I am always at the service of this or that person. I have to consume many hours of the dayoften the best onesin the service of others." He was always strapped for cash and constantly asking his friends in the government to help get him a raise. What he wanted more than anything else was to invent something that would make him rich and famous.
Then, in the summer of 1609, Galileo heard a rumor that someone in Holland had invented a device called a spyglass which allowed people to see things up close from a distance. As soon as Galileo heard about it he cursed himself because he'd had a similar idea years ago but he'd never followed up on it. He knew that the Italian government would be interested in such a device for military purposes. So he decided to try to make one himself before anyone from Holland could travel down to Italy. If he could present it to the government first, he would get the credit.
According to Galileo it only took him twenty-four hours to design his own telescope, even though he'd never seen one. And the telescope he designed was actually better than the one from Holland, more than twenty times more powerful. He presented it to the government and they rewarded him with a lifetime appointment to his university post, with double the pay.
Even though he hadn't invented the telescope, it was Galileo's design that made news across Europe. Galileo had finally achieved his dream of fame and fortune. He might have left it at that, but he kept improving upon his design, making his telescope even more powerful. And then, one night, in the early fall of 1609, Galileo was looking out the window of his house when he saw the moon rising. Suddenly, he got the idea to look at the moon through the telescope.
It was the first time in history that a human being had seen the moon in such detail. Galileo was shocked to discover that the moon's surface wasn't smooth, but covered with craters and cavities. He spent the next two months observing the moon on every clear night, jotting down sketches of what he saw.
When he was satisfied that he'd seen enough of the moon he turned his telescope on the stars. He was amazed to find that in areas of the sky where previously a half dozen stars had formed a constellation, he could now see hundreds of new stars. And some stars that he had looked at all his life, when seen through a telescope, turned out to be clusters of different stars.
Galileo kept improving and improving the power of his telescope so he could see more and more details of the sky. He eventually designed a telescope that could magnify up to a thousand times. It was this telescope that he was using on the night of January 7, 1610 when Jupiter became visible for the first time that year. That night, Galileo saw three stars, arranged in a straight line next to Jupiter. He observed them over the next several days and found that they changed position in relation to Jupiter every night. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that these must be moons revolving around Jupiter. And if moons could revolve around Jupiter, then Aristotle's theory that everything revolved around the earth was incorrect. This observation provided evidence for Copernicus' theory that the earth revolves around the sun.
Galileo spent the rest of his life writing about these ideas, even though they got him into big trouble with the Catholic Church. By the end of his life, he was living under house arrest, his books banned, but he would go down in history as the first person to show, through direct observation, that our planet was not the center of the universe.
Poem: "Photograph/1936" by David Bengtson from What Calls Us. © David Bengtson. Reprinted with permission.
They face each other, my father in a white jacket,
rented for the day, my grandfather
in a dark suit, tie too short, a light felt
dress hat with a dark band, the shadow
of the brim covering his eyes.
Graduation is over. They've just
come home from the high school. There'll be
a little party. Before everyone goes inside,
someone, one of your brothers, says, "Wait,
we need a photo of Gilbert and Pa.
How about over there by the tree? Gilbert,
stand in front of the bench. Pa, you stand,
next to him. Okay, look at each other. That's good.
Gilbert, don't hide your diploma." So
you hold the roll of paper a bit higher.
Dad, that bench is so close, right behind you,
if you backed up at all, you'd have to
sit down. Go ahead. Sit with your dad.
There's enough room for the two of you,
and smile. He'll reach his arm around you and
tell you how proud he is.
Now, the tall pine is gone, slashed in a storm.
The large yard, now covered by the house built
by one of your brothers, then shared
with his son and his son's wife
until last year when your brother
came home one night to find them
inside, refusing to open the doors.
There he stood, on his own front steps, 89,
locked out, forever.
I would like to stand in the space
between you and your dad, and say,
"Let's sit together on this bench. Let's talk
about the things that frighten us,"
and we'd talk about boilers that explode,
long trips on rough seas to small islands,
why a son, given everything,
would turn on his father, his family,
the love of family.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of historian Henry Adams, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1838). He was the great-grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. But growing up, he felt that his family's illustrious history was a burden on him. He had no interest in politics.
Adams worked as a secretary for his diplomat father, which got him out of serving in the military during the Civil War, but after that he quickly moved into freelance journalism. He once wrote a 2,700-page book called History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, and the way he saw it, things had only gone downhill from there. He said, "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin."
But we remember him today for writing one of the first modern American memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams. It was privately printed in 1907 and few people read it. But when it was republished in 1918 after Adams's death it won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
At the time, memoirs were generally written by great men to recount their great, public lives. But The Education of Henry Adams isn't the story of great deeds. It's the story of Henry Adams's growing sense of his own personality, his own individual ideas about America and about history. And he even admits in the book that his own ideas are often a mess. He writes of himself in third person, "The pursuit of ignorance ... had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost."
It was one of the first times in American literature that an American had written such a subjective book about his own experiences and his own ideas.
It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford, born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). He's best known as the author of the novels The Sportswriter (1985) and Independence Day (1995). Ford has spent most of his adult life moving from city to city with his wife. He's lived in fourteen states, as well as France and Mexico. At one point he divided his time between a townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a house in Montana, and a plantation house in Mississippi. He said, "The really central thing is that, no matter where I move, I always write and I'm married to the same girl. All that other stuff is just filigree."
Poem: "Down on My Knees" by Ginger Andrews from An Honest Answer. © Story Line Press. Reprinted with permission.
Down on My Knees
cleaning out my refrigerator
and thinking about writing a religious poem
that somehow combines feeling sorry for myself
with ordinary praise, when my nephew stumbles in for coffee
to wash down what looks like a hangover
and get rid of what he calls hot dog water breath.
I wasn't going to bake the cake
now cooling on the counter, but I found a dozen eggs tipped
sideways in their carton behind a leftover Thanksgiving Jell-O dish.
There's something therapeutic about baking a devil's food cake,
whipping up that buttercream frosting,
knowing your sisters will drop by and say Lord yes
they'd love just a little piece.
Everybody suffers, wants to run away,
is broke after Christmas, stayed up too late
to make it to church Sunday morning. Everybody should
drink coffee with their nephews,
eat chocolate cake with their sisters, be thankful
and happy enough under a warm and unexpected January sun.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1972 that President Richard Nixon departed on his historic trip to China, with the goal of normalizing relations between the two countries. At the time, this was a hugely ambitious and controversial thing to do, and Nixon had been keeping his plans about it secret from Congress and even most of his administration for months. Henry Kissinger was one of the only people Nixon briefed on the plan until it was publicly announced in the summer of 1971.
At the time, relations were so nonexistent with China that the White House didn't even have any Chinese contacts to communicate with. Nixon had to contact the Chinese government through European diplomats.
Nixon's idea was that if he could normalize relations with China, he could play China off against Russia, and he could play Russia off against China. And he might he able to persuade China to help end the war in Vietnam.
Nixon spent months preparing for his trip, being briefed by all kinds of Chinese experts, including the French novelist André Malraux. When the day of the trip finally arrived, Nixon still didn't even know if he'd be able to meet with Mao Tse-tung. It would be a huge political blunder if he traveled all the way to the country and didn't meet its leader, but he decided to gamble.
Because New York City was thirteen hours behind China, Nixon's arrival was carried live on prime-time news across the United States. Americans watched as Nixon exited the plane with a Red Army band playing "The Star Spangled Banner." He spent the next several days visiting the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City, and the Great Hall of the People, all of them perfect photo opportunities. At various banquets, the Red Army bands played more American tunes, including "America the Beautiful" and "Home on the Range."
Nixon did finally get to meet with Mao Tse-tung, and he learned that the uncertainty about the meeting came from the fact that Mao was on his deathbed. But the trip was a success, and relations were normalized. It was regarded as Nixon's finest hour as a president. If it hadn't been for the Watergate scandal, Nixon probably would have been remembered chiefly as the man who brought China back into communication with the Western World.
It's the birthday of novelist Chaim Potok, born in the Bronx, New York (1929). He's the author of several novels about Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx, including The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969), and The Book of Lights (1981).
It's the birthday of economist Thomas Robert Malthus, born in Surrey, England (1766). In 1798 he published a pamphlet called An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that the human population of the earth was growing at a faster rate than the food supply, and that war, disease, and famine were necessary in order to prevent overpopulation.
It's the birthday of folk poet Andrew "Banjo" Paterson, born in Narrambla, New South Wales, Australia (1864). He's credited with writing the lyrics to the ballad "Waltzing Matilda," sometimes called Australia's unofficial national anthem.
Poem: "laid off" by Richard Vargas from McLife: Selected Poems 1978-2004. © Main Street Rag Publishing. Reprinted with permission.
they hold their heads high
say they saw it coming
(they did) and knew
how to take it in stride
all week whispered conversations
about unemployment benefits
and maybe going back to school
then the planning out loud for all to hear
about meeting at a local bar Friday after work
to get blasted and let it all hang out
if you were one of the lucky ones
you'll pass because after the 3rd round
weird looks will begin to come your way
the comic book bubbles over their
heads where you can read their thoughts
will say the same thing:
"why not him?"
then you'll blink an eye and see it
reflected back at you in their faces
the shotgun someone will clean tomorrow
and come Monday you're sitting at your
desk taking a phone call
whipping around to see what made
the loud metallic click behind you
you'll blink again
now you're back in the bar
Hank Williams is on the jukebox
they're all lifting their glasses
in your direction
you read someone's lips
as he/she says:
"watch out man,
you could be next."
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). She didn't start writing fiction until she was in her thirties, working as an editor for Random House and raising two children. She wasn't happy with her marriage and writing helped her escape her daily troubles. She joined a small writing group and one day she didn't have anything to bring to the group meeting, so she jotted down a story about a black girl who wants blue eyes. The story later became her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1969).
She continued to edit books for Random House after the publication of The Bluest Eye, but she was transferred from the textbook department to the trade department. She helped to get books by black authors published, including an autobiography by Muhammad Ali, and she wrote social commentary for mass-market publications.
Morrison's first big success was the 1977 novel Song of Solomon, about a rich black businessman who tries to hide his working-class background. It was the first novel by a black author to be chosen for the Book-of-the-Month Club since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940.
But Morrison is probably best known for her novel Beloved (1987), about a former slave named Sethe, living just after the Civil War, who is haunted by the ghost of the baby daughter she killed in order to save the girl from a life of slavery. At first, Toni Morrison didn't want to write a novel about slavery. She figured the book would be among her least popular because it was too dark and too serious, and it was about a subject that most people wanted to forget ever happened. But Beloved was hailed as a masterpiece and it was one of the reasons Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her novel Love came out in 2005.
Toni Morrison wrote, "They straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places ... but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. ... All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place."
It's the birthday of poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, born in Heraklion on the island of Crete, Greece (1886). He's best known for his novels Zorba the Greek (1946) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955).
It's the birthday of novelist Wallace Stegner, born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). He wrote dozens of novels about the American West, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Angle of Repose (1973).
It's the birthday of writer Sholem Aleichem, born Solomon Rabinowitz in Pereyaslav, Ukraine. He's known as the Mark Twain of Yiddish literature. He wrote five novels, many plays, and over 300 short stories.
He said, "Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor."
Poem: "On the Eve of My Mother's Surgery" by David Graham from Stutter Monk. © Flume Press. Reprinted with permission.
On the Eve of My Mother's Surgery
She takes Dad, for a treat,
to the upstairs dining room,
where there are tablecloths
instead of bibs, waitresses
instead of nurses, where
all their joshing and arm-patting
make him grin like a seven
year old. But he knows where
he is, sleeping alone
for the first time in five
decades, and so he tells
Cindy in his halting
whisper all about Mom's
"And I'm no help at all!"
This to a seventeen year old
with pretty face, carving
his meat into helpful cubes.
Out of the heart of dementia
he speaks unanswerable
truths, often as not confiding
in some minimum-wage
Cindy or Dawn, whose parents
weren't born when he sailed
the South Pacific in a troop ship
or cruised timber deep within
the Allagash. They will not
connect this man in diapers
with the one on horseback
in the snapshot marking his door.
At shift change they'll gun their cars
up the hill, radios screeching
and thumping, all the day's
bottled velocity released
like bees from the hive.
And it's true he's no help
anymore, stripped of his
pocketful of keys, man
without wallet or car,
who knows just enough
for honest misery
as he studies the menu's
to find the words that may
release. "I'm walking much
better now, don't you think?"
he asks Mom, and that's true, too.
which helps neither of them
at all in their frozen love.
Sudden as a cloud across
the sun, he's overcast
again: "Keep your voice down!"
he warns her. He knows all about
the secret tunnel system
under the town, where Jews
and Mohammedans skirmish ...
And how do I know all this?
Our of some bent need for shape
and color, blues and riffs,
I build it from echoes
on the phone line, fragments
crumbling from envelopes,
fever dream pond ripples
reaching me a thousand miles
away. Then let my daily tears
wash into shower spray
once again, tears which
are of no help at all.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Carson McCullers, born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia (1917). She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, but moved to New York when she was seventeen years old. She's known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), which was published when she was twenty-three years old. It's about four people in a small town in Georgiaan adolescent girl, a socialist agitator, a black physician, a widower who owns a caféand a deaf and mute man who tries unsuccessfully to communicate with the people around him.
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Kay Boyle, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1902). She wrote more than fifty books, including many novels, poetry collections, and children's booksbut she's best known for her short stories, which are collected in Life Being the Best (1988) and Fifty Stories (1980). She called herself "a dangerous radical disguised as a perfect lady."
It's the birthday of novelist Amy Tan, born to Chinese parents in Oakland, California (1952). She started writing The Joy Luck Club in her mid-thirties, after visiting her half-sisters in China. It consists of sixteen interrelated stories about four Chinese immigrant mothers and their Chinese-American daughters. It was a huge best-seller and was made into a popular movie.