Poem: "Newsphoto: Basra, Collateral Damage" By Steve Kowit. Published in The Sun literary journal. Used by permission of the author.
Our armies do not come into your cities and lands
as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.
General F.S. Maude, commander of the British
colonial forces in Iraq, 1914
Apparently the little girl is dead.
In Basra, bombed to rubble by the Yanks,
her stricken father cradles her small head.
Her right foot dangles, ghastly, by a thread.
Cluster bombs & F-16s & tanks.
That is to say the little girl is dead
whose fingers curl (small hand brushed with blood)
as if to clutch his larger hand. He drinks
hersobbingin, & cradles her small head,
& rocks her in his arms, the final bed
but one in which she'll lie. The father clings,
as if his broken daughter were not dead,
her face, as if in sleep, becalmed, but red,
bloodied, bruised. At bottom left, the ranks
of those still dying die beneath her head.
Legions of the Lords of Plunder: the dread
angel of empire offers you thanks!
Look, if you dare! See? The child is dead.
Her stricken father cradles her small head.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1453 that the longest war in history, known as the Hundred Years' War, came to an end. The war was fought over an incredibly complicated dispute over the succession to the French crown. When the King of France had died in 1328, the fifteen-year-old King Edward III of England thought he had a right to the throne, since he was the nephew of the king. But a French member of the same family, Philip VI, also claimed the throne.
An English army invaded France and began to lay siege to various cities, but at the time, warfare was still so primitive that sieges could just go on and on. The English won a series of battles, but they still didn't make much progress in occupying more French land. The war dragged on through the reigns of five English kings and five French kings. It was fought entirely on French soil and is estimated to have reduced the French population by fifty percent.
It was on this day in 1936 that Nationalist rebels launched a military uprising all across Spain, signaling the start of the Spanish Civil War. In February of 1936, a coalition of left-wing parties had come into office by less than two percentage points. The right-wing Nationalist Party, made up of the rich, the church, and the military, decided to take back power by force. General Francisco Franco amassed his army in Morocco, and he invaded Spain from the south and marched north toward Madrid.
It was one of the first wars in history to be covered minute by minute by the news media around the globe. Photography had been modernized to the extent that journalists could take action shots of battle, so it was the first time that newspapers could show pictures of actual warfare, rather than just the aftermath.
Hitler and Mussolini began providing support to Franco, and Stalin provided support to the Republicans. Intellectuals, writers, and artists joined the fight against the Nationalists. A relatively unknown journalist named George Orwell joined a workers' militia in Catalonia. Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos both covered the war as journalists, and both wrote novels about the warHemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and Dos Passos, The Adventures of a Young Man (1939). The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca tried to remain neutral at first, but he eventually became a supporter of the Republicans, and he was assassinated by the Nationalists. The French novelist André Malraux recruited a squadron of airplanes and helped lead bombing raids against the fascists.
But Franco was an accomplished general and a brutally decisive leader. The Republicans, on the other hand, were split among their many factions, and they had no central leadership. And so Franco eventually won the war by March of 1939.
The French writer Albert Camus said, "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and still be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward."
Poem: "Vegan" by Sue Ellen Thompson from The Golden Hour. © Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh. Reprinted with permission.
My daughter hauls her sacks of beans
and vegetables in from the car and begins to chop.
My father, who has had enough caffeine,
makes himself a manhattan-on-the-rocks.
It's Sunday, his night for sausage and eggs,
hers for stir-fried lentils, rice, and kale.
Watching her cook eases his fatigue
and loneliness. Later, she'll trim his toenails.
He no longer has an appetite
for anything beyond this evening ritual.
But he'll fry himself an egg tonight
and eat dinner with his granddaughter. For a widower,
there is no greater comfort in the world
than his girls and his girls' girls.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, (books by this author) born in Calcutta, India (1811). His father worked for the British East India Company, but he died when Thackeray was just a boy, and Thackeray's mother sent him back to England to go to boarding school. He thought he had an inheritance waiting for him from his late father, but the bank where his father's money was invested collapsed, and what remained of his inheritance was gone. So Thackeray turned twenty-one with few prospects, and he turned to making money from funny drawings and satirical essays. He made his name with a column he wrote for Punch magazine called "The Snobs of England By One of Themselves."
He went on to write novels, and became the second most popular novelist of his lifetime, after Charles Dickens. His masterpiece was Vanity Fair (1847). It's the story of Becky Sharp, the poor daughter of a drawing master who fights her way up through society by any means necessary.
William Makepeace Thackeray said, "There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write."
It's the birthday of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, (books by this author) born in Louisville, Kentucky (1939). He was trying to make it as a freelance writer, living with his mother, when he was hired by The Nation magazine to write a brief investigative article about the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. After his article was published, he got a call from a publisher offering him fifteen hundred dollars to write a book on the same subject.
Thompson used the advance to buy a motorcycle and began driving around the country, meeting bikers and writing about them. He almost died doing his research one day when five Hell's Angels suddenly turned on him and beat him senseless. But he survived, and in 1967 he published his book Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. The experience of writing the book inspired Thompson to become a kind of outlaw journalist of the counterculture, writing about his own adventures beyond the boundaries of normal society. He went on to become one of the most prominent journalists of his generation. In 1971 he published his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Hunter S. Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Today is believed to be the anniversary of the fire that burned Rome in 64 A.D., while the emperor Nero supposedly played his fiddle. In fact, Nero wasn't even in Rome when the fire broke out. He was thirty-five miles away at his holiday villa on the coast, and his own palace was one of the buildings that burned.
Nero apparently decided that the fire needed to be blamed on someone else. And so he chose a tiny new religious group called the Christians. He had Christians crucified in the streets and burned at the stake. The religion of Christianity was only a few decades old when Nero chose to single it out. The historian Tacitus later argued that Nero's persecution of the Christians went too far, and that it had the unintended effect of making people sympathize with the Christians. It's possible that Nero's decision to blame Christians for the fire gave them the publicity they needed to help spread their ideas.
A little more than two hundred years after Nero picked the Christians as his scapegoat, the emperor of the Roman Empire himself converted to Christianity, and it became the dominant religion of Europe for more than 1,500 years.
Poem: "Nineteen-Thirty-Eight" by Andrea Hollander Budy from Woman in the Painting. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.
I remember the way my mother
answered when people asked
where she'd gone to school:
South Side High, 1938,
adding the year in the same breath
though I knew
she never graduated,
when her father lost his job.
Now it was her turn
to make herself
useful, he told her.
Hadn't he put
food on the table
all her life and all her little sister's?
to tell a lie like hers, to answer
South Side High, 1938, and smile
the blaze in her chest, her envy
for the questioner who likely met
her own husband at some university.
But wasn't my mother the lucky one,
my grandfather was fond of telling her
even into my childhood, sometimes
in front of my friends, lucky
to have got my father, a college man
who sat beside her at a ballgame
in 1939? Just look at her
who didn't finish high school!
Didn't I tell her then it wouldn't matter?
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the anniversary of the first women's rights conference in history, organized in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. It was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friend Lucretia Mott. They had been getting together frequently to talk about the abuses they suffered as women, and they finally decided to have a public meeting to discuss the status of women in society. At the meeting, on this day in 1848, they drew up a declaration, which said in part, "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman." Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the declaration and then made a radical suggestion, that the document should also demand a woman's right to vote. At that time no women were allowed to vote anywhere on the planet. And many of the other women there objected to the idea. They thought it was impossible.
It was on this day in 1954 that the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was publishedThe Fellowship of the Ring. Seventeen years had passed since the publication of The Hobbit (1937), to which The Fellowship of the Ring was a sequel. The Hobbit had gotten a great review in The Times Literary Supplement, and it went on to become a best-seller. So J.R.R. Tolkien (books by this author) began working on a sequel, about the nephew of the hobbit Bilbo, the nephew being named Frodo. He decided that the story would center on the magical ring, which hadn't been an important part of The Hobbit.
Tolkien spent the next seventeen years working on The Lord of the Rings. He was well into his first draft by the time World War II broke out in 1939. The book became more complicated as Tolkien went along, and it was taking much longer to finish than he had planned. He went through long stretches where he didn't write anything and considered giving the project up altogether. He wanted to make sure all of the details about the geography, language, and mythology of Middle Earth were consistent. He made elaborate charts to keep track of the events of his story, showing dates, days of the week, the direction of the wind, and the phases of the moon.
Finally, in the fall of 1949, Tolkien finished writing The Lord of the Rings. He typed the final copy out himself, sitting on a bed in his attic, balancing the typewriter on his lap, and tapping it out with two fingers.
The Lord of the Rings turned out to be more than half a million words long. Tolkien wanted to publish it in one volume, his publisher wanted to divide it into three volumes and so the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out on this day in 1954.
Only about three and a half thousand copies were printed, but it turned out to be incredibly popular, and it went through a second printing in just six weeks.
It's the birthday of CIA agent and author Philip Agee, born in Tacoma Park, Florida (1935). He worked for the CIA for nine years and then resigned and published his exposé, Inside the Company (1975).
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen
Poem: "Dr. Collin Simms" by Sue Ellen Thompson from The Golden Hour. © Autumn House Press, Pittsburgh. Reprinted with permission.
Dr. Collin Simms
We were living in England, where for fourteen
weeks I didn't know I was pregnant. Then
I rolled over in bed one morning
and felt a fist beneath me. My boyfriend
was in the upstairs bathroom, taking a shower.
An American acquaintance persuaded her doctor to meet
with us the next day. We took the Underground,
thrilled and silenced by the possibility.
There was an open fire at one end of the room,
a Persian rug and, behind his desk, a bay
window overlooking Harley Street. Afternoon
tea was served, and he called us by my maiden name.
Slipping behind a lacquered screen, I undressed.
Then he examined me: Oh my yes.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of the poet Francesco Petrarca, (books by this author) better known as Petrarch, born in Arezzo, Italy (1304). He wrote epic poems in Latin that made him famous in his lifetime, but we know him for a book of his sonnets published after his death about a woman named Laurathe Canzoniere (1374) or "Song Book." They were the only poems he wrote in Italian.
Thanks in large part to Petrarch, writing sonnets became all the rage in Elizabethan England, when poets like Sir Walter Raleigh, Michael Drayton, and, most famously, William Shakespeare composed sonnet sequences.
It's the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy, (books by this author) born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island (1933). He spent four years in the Air Force, went to the University of Tennessee, and then dropped out after just a couple years. He spent the next few years working on what would become his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Over the next twenty-five years, McCarthy wrote four more novels. Most of them were set in rural Tennessee, and he was known for filling them with violence and bloodshed. In the late '70s, he moved to El Paso, Texas, and he set his next book, Blood Meridian, in the Texas of the 1850s. It was his most violent book yet, about a fourteen-year-old boy who roams around the West with a band of killers. The New York Times called it "the bloodiest book since the Iliad."
It wasn't until the publication of All the Pretty Horses in 1992 that McCarthy finally became widely recognized. It's about a sixteen-year-old Texas rancher who leaves his family and rides into northern Mexico looking to make his fortune. It won the National Book Award and sold almost 200,000 copies in less than six months. It's since been made into a Hollywood movie.
McCarthy doesn't do book tours or give lectures, and he's never taught or written journalism to support himself. He said, "There's no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to set foot on the moon on this day in 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon, because he was closest to the door.
It was on this day in 1875 that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. An estimated 3.5 trillion locusts made up the swarm. It was about 1800 miles long and 110 miles wide, ranging from Canada down to Texas.
The locusts blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path. Similar locust swarms occurred in the following years, but by the mid-1880s, the swarms died down. Within a few decades they were believed to be extinct.
Poem: "A Reading" by Wendy Cope from If I Don't Know. © Faber and Faber. Reprinted with permission.
Everybody in this room is bored.
The poems drag, the voice and gestures irk.
He can't be interrupted or ignored.
Poor fools, we came here of our own accord
And some of us have paid to hear this jerk.
Everybody in the room is bored.
The silent cry goes up, 'How long, O Lord?'
But nobody will scream or go berserk.
He won't be interrupted or ignored.
Or hit by eggs, or savaged by a horde
Of desperate people maddened by his work.
Everybody in the room is bored,
Except the poet. We are his reward,
Pretending to indulge in his every quirk.
He won't be interrupted or ignored.
At last it's over. How we all applaud!
The poet thanks us with a modest smirk.
Everybody in the room was bored.
He wasn't interrupted or ignored.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of cartoonist Garry Trudeau, born in New York City, New York (1948), who is the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip.
It's the birthday of author and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, (books by this author) born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (1911). In his Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan wrote, long before the invention of the Internet, that electronic media was creating a global electronic village in which books would become obsolete.
It's the birthday of poet Wendy Cope, born in Erith, Kent, England (1945).
It's the birthday of Tess Gallagher, (books by this author) born in Port Angeles, Washington (1943). She said, "If poems are deep-sea diving, writing fiction is foraging."
She also said, "Fiction is ... like sitting in a clearing and waiting to see if the deer will come. Poetry to me is lightning of the moment."
It's the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, (books by this author) born in Oak Park, Illinois (1899). He was just twenty-two when he moved to Paris with his wife, having taken a job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. Even though he was making decent money, he liked the idea of living like a bohemian, so they moved into an apartment in the Latin Quarter, in a neighborhood full of drunks, beggars, and street musicians. Rent was two hundred and fifty francs a month, or about eighteen dollars, which left them plenty of money to travel around Europe when they wanted to.
He rented himself a room in a hotel, and every morning, after breakfast, he would walk to his writing room and work. But instead of writing stories, he just tried to write what he called "true sentences." He said, "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.'"
Between January and April 1922, Hemingway had composed only six sentences that he was proud of. One of those sentences read, "I have stood on the crowded back platform of a seven o'clock ... bus as it lurched along the wet lamp-lit street while men who were going home to supper never looked up from their newspapers as we passed Notre Dame gray and dripping in the rain."
His first important book was the collection of short stories In Our Time (1925), and he followed that with The Sun Also Rises (1926). But it was A Farewell To Arms (1929) that most critics consider his greatest novel. It was Hemingway's first big success, selling 80,000 copies in just four months.
It begins, "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."
Poem: "Letter to N.Y." by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems 1927-1979. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.
Letter to N.Y.
For Louise Crane
In your next letter I wish you'd say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you're pursuing:
taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,
and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you're in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,
and most of the jokes you just can't catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,
and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.
Wheat, not oats, dear. I'm afraid
if it's wheat it's none of your sowing,
nevertheless I'd like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of poet Stephen Vincent Benét, (books by this author) born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1898). He was one of the most popular poets of his day, and today he's remembered for his epic poem about the Civil War, John Brown's Body (1928). It was one of the best-selling poems of all time, 15,000 lines of rhymed verse, telling the story of the Civil War from beginning to end. It made Benét a fortune, but he lost most if it in the stock market crash of 1929.
It's the birthday of novelist Tom Robbins, (books by this author) born in Blowing Rock, North Carolina (1936). He's known for novels such as Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976), Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (1994), and Villa Incognito (2003). After college, he hitchhiked around the United States until he was drafted and sent to Korea. He taught meteorology to South Korean fighter pilots.
Robbins worked for a while as a journalist in Seattle and got involved in the counterculture movement. He wrote his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction (1971), which became a word-of-mouth best-seller among college students and hippies.
Robbins has gone on to write many more best-selling books. He says that when he starts a book, he has no idea of what the story will be. He never outlines and never revises. He just works on each sentence until he thinks it's perfect, sometimes for more than an hour, and then he moves on to the next one. He said, "I'm probably more interested in sentences than anything else in life."
It's the birthday of the painter Edward Hopper, (books by this author) born in Nyack, New York (1882). By the time he was twelve years old, he was already six feet tall, skinny, and gangly. He studied art and took a trip to Paris as a young man, which was where he fell in love with light. He said that the light in Paris was unlike any light he'd ever seen before. He tried to recreate that light in his paintings at the time.
He worked for a while as an illustrator for an advertising agency in New York City, a job that he hated. But in his spare time, he drove around and painted uniquely American places: train stations, gas stations, corner saloons. He also became one of the first American painters to paint office scenespeople working late at the office, sitting at desks high above the city.
Hopper had only sold one painting by the time he was forty years old, but his first major exhibition in 1933 at the Museum of Modern Art made him famous. He lived and worked in the same walk-up apartment in New York's Washington Square from 1913 until 1967. He ate almost every meal of his adult life in a diner, and he tried never to ride in a taxi. He loved the theater, but even after he made it big as an artist, he continued to sit 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 got to depicting a child was his painting "New York Pavements," which shows a nun pushing a baby carriage. His painting "Four Lane Road" is his only painting that shows people 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: "Creed" by Meg Kearney from An Unkindness of Ravens. © BOA Editions, Rochester, New York, 2001. Reprinted with permission.
I believe the chicken before the egg
though I believe in the egg. I believe
eating is a form of touch carried
to the bitter end; I believe chocolate
is good for you; I believe I'm a lefty
in a right-handed world, which does not
make me gauche, or abnormal, or sinister.
I believe "normal" is just a cycle on
the washing machine; I believe the touch
of hands has the power to heal, though
nothing will ever fill this immeasurable
hole in the center of my chest. I believe
in kissing; I believe in mail; I believe
in salt over the shoulder, a watched
pot never boils, and if I sit by my
mailbox waiting for the letter I want
it will never arrivenot because of
superstition, but because that's not
how life works. I believe in work:
phone calls, typing, multiplying,
black coffee, write write write, dig
dig dig, sweep sweep. I believe in
a slow, tortuous sweep of tongue
down the lover's belly; I believe I've
been swept off my feet more than once
and it's a good idea not to name names.
Digging for names is part of my work,
but that's a different poem. I believe
there's a difference between men and
women and I thank God for it. I believe
in God, and if you hold the door
and carry my books, I'll be sure to ask
for your name. What is your name? Do
you believe in ghosts? I believe
the morning my father died I heard him
whistling "Danny Boy" in the bathroom,
and a week later saw him standing in
the living room with a suitcase in his
hand. We never got to say good-bye, he
said, and I said I don't believe in
good-byes. I believe that's why I have
this hole in my chest; sometimes it's
rabid; sometimes it's incoherent. I
believe I'll survive. I believe that
"early to bed and early to rise" is
a boring way to live. I believe good
poets borrow, great poets steal, and
if only we'd stop trying to be happy
we could have a pretty good time. I
believe time doesn't heal all wounds;
I believe in getting flowers for no
reason; I believe "Give a Hoot, Don't
Pollute," "Reading is Fundamental,"
Yankee Stadium belongs in the Bronx,
and the best bagels in New York are
boiled and baked on the corner of First
and 21st. I believe in Santa
Claus, Jimmy Stewart, ZuZu's petals,
Arbor Day, and that ugly baby I keep
dreaming aboutshe lives inside me
opening and closing her wide mouth.
I believe she will never taste her
mother's milk; she will never be
beautiful; she will always wonder what
it's like to be born; and if you hold
your hand right heretouch me right
here, as if this is all that matters,
this is all you ever wanted, I believe
something might move inside me,
and it would be more than I could stand.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of crime novelist Raymond Chandler, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1888). He lived with his mother in England growing up and then came back to this country. He became a wealthy oil executive and didn't begin writing until the stock market crash of 1929. He went on to write several novels about the private detective Philip Marlow, such as The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1954).
Chandler was never any good at coming up with plots. He believed that readers enjoyed his stories for his descriptions, not the action. He said, "The things [my readers] remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death."
It was on this night in 1967 that a riot broke out in Detroit, marking the beginning of the decline of one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the country. An all-white squadron of police officers decided to raid a bar in a black neighborhood where there was a party to welcome home two recent veterans of the Vietnam War. The police stormed the bar, rounded up and arrested eighty-five black men and began loading them into vans.
The riot that broke out raged for five days. Thousands of soldiers from the Michigan National Guard were called in, along with tanks. The National Guardsmen fired off more than 150,000 bullets over the course of the riot.
Forty-three people were killed and whole blocks of the city went up in flames. After the riots, many of the white residents of the city moved to the suburbs. Thousands of homes were abandoned, and the city's population plunged from 1.6 million to 992,000 in just a few years. By 1990, Detroit was one of the poorest cities in America, with one in every three residents living in poverty.