MONDAY, 31 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Testament" by Hayden Carruth, from Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey: Poems 1991-1995. © Copper Canyon Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Testament

So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I'm sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I've made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can't go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow's mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I'm no financier doing
the world's great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Catharine Read Williams, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1790), who wrote Fall River: An Authentic Narrative (1833), one of the earliest examples of public reporting in the United States. It was an account of the mysterious death of Sarah Cornell, a young mill worker whose body was found hanging from a pole of a haystack one winter day in 1832. She was several months pregnant, and her death was ruled a suicide until they found a note in her belongings that read: "If I am missing enquire of the Rev. Mr. Avery of Bristol." Reverend Ephraim Avery was a prominent Methodist minister, a married man with several children. After the trial the reverend was acquitted on all counts. Catharine Read Williams exposed the corruption of the New England clergy when she wrote about the sleepy town of Fall River, warning readers that "even here, has murder stalked abroad, amidst scenes of nature's loveliness."


It's the birthday of the woman Martin Luther King, Jr. called "The Queen of American Folk Music," Odetta, born Odetta Holmes Filious, in Birmingham, Alabama (1930). She thought at first that she'd be an opera singer, but she heard folk music in San Francisco and decided that was the kind of music that said what she wanted to say. A reviewer once said, "Odetta can't sing 'folk' at all, because she doesn't really sound like a person singing, let alone like the person next door singing. She sounds more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."



Some of what we do, we do
to make things happen,
the alarm to wake us up, the coffee to perc,
the car to start.

The rest of what we do, we do
trying to keep something from doing something
the skin from aging, the hoe from rusting,
the truth from getting out.

With yes and no like the poles of a battery
powering our passage through the days,
we move, as we call it, forward,
wanting to be wanted,
wanting not to lose the rain forest,
wanting the water to boil,
wanting not to have cancer,
wanting to be home by dark,
wanting not to run out of gas,

as each of us wants the other
watching at the end,
as both want not to leave the other alone,
as wanting to love beyond this meat and bone,
we gaze across breakfast and pretend.

"Love Poem with Toast" by Miller Williams, from Some Jazz a While: Collected Poems. © University of Illinois Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's New Year's Day. It was Ben Franklin who said, "Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each new year find you a better man."

It was on this day in 1660 that Samuel Pepys (Peeps) began his famous diary. The 27-year-old kept up the book for nine years during the restoration of the monarchy to England after the British Civil War, and in his daily record he gave eyewitness accounts to the plague (1665), the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), and the Great Fire of London (1666). He wrote the entire diary in shorthand, and it wasn't until the 19th century that scholars were able to finally decipher the code he had used.

Today in 1764, the Royal Family at Versailles was treated to a harpsichord performance by 8-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart had the honor of standing behind the queen at dinner later that day.

It was on this day in 1892 that the Ellis Island Immigrant Station in New York officially opened. A 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore became the first of the more than 12 million immigrants to pass through Ellis Island in its 62 years of operation.

It was on this day in 1953 that country music legend Hank Williams Sr. died in Oak Hill, West Virginia, on his way to a New Year's concert in Canton, Ohio. A blizzard had grounded all the airplanes in Nashville, and so he paid an 18-year-old kid to drive him in his new baby-blue Cadillac all the way to the venue. When the driver stopped at a gas station, and the singer was found dead in the backseat. He was only 29 years old.

It's the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1863, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves in the Southern states.

It's the birthday of writer E.M. Forster (Edward Morgan Forster), (books by this author) born in London 1879. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother moved the family to an old country estate called Rooksnest, in Hertfordshire, which became the model for the cozy house in his book Howards End (1910). He worked for the Red Cross in Egypt during World War I and then traveled to India, where he was inspired to write A Passage to India (1924).

It's the birthday of novelist J.D. Salinger (Jerome David Salinger), (books by this author) born in New York City in 1919, author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951). He was in the ground force invasion of Normandy on D-Day, and for months he saw some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, he wrote the novel The Catcher in the Rye. It was an immediate best-seller. J.D. Salinger now lives in seclusion in New Hampshire, and though he hasn't published anything new in 40 years, his friends and neighbors claim that he still continues to write.



I love the way men crack
open when their wives leave them,
their sheaths curling back like the split
shells of roasted chestnuts, exposing
the sweet creamy meat. They call you
and unburden their hearts the way a woman
takes off her jewels, the heavy
pendant earrings, the stiff lace gown and corset,
and slips into a loose kimono.
It's like you've both had a couple shots
of really good scotch and snow is falling
in the cone of light under the street lamp—
large slow flakes that float down in the amber glow.

They tell you all the pain pressed into their flat chests,
their disappointed penises, their empty hands.
As they sift through the betrayals and regrets,
their shocked realization of how hard they tried,
the way they shouldered the yoke
with such stupid good faith—
they grow younger and younger. They cry
with the unselfconciousness of children.
When they hug you, they cling.
Like someone who's needed glasses for a long time—
and finally got them-they look around
just for the pleasure of it: the detail,
the sharp edges of what the world has to offer.

And when they fall in love again, it only gets better.
Their hearts are stuffed full as éclairs
and the custard oozes out at a touch.
They love her, they love you, they love everyone.
They drag out all the musty sorrows and joys
from the basement where they've been shoved
with mitts and coin collections. They tell you
things they've never told anyone.
Fresh from loving her, they come glowing
like souls slipping into the bodies
of babies about to be born.

Then a year goes by. Or two.
Like broken bones, they knit back together.
They grow like grass and bushes and trees
after a forest fire, covering the seared earth.
They landscape the whole thing, plant like mad
and spend every weekend watering and weeding.

"I Love the Way Men Crack" by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love, Vol. 1. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2002. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It was on this day in 1897 that the author Stephen Crane (books by this author) (1871) survived the sinking of a boat headed for Cuba and he wrote about the experience in his short story "The Open Boat" (1898), which was one of the first works of fiction based on actual reportage.

It's the birthday of Isaac Asimov, (books by this author) born in Petrovichi, Russia (1920), who started a book whenever he wanted to learn about a topic that he didn't fully understand, and so he published books about outer space, nuclear physics, organic chemistry, history, astronomy, Greek mythology, and religion.

It's the birthday of war novelist Leonard B. Scott, (books by this author) born in Bremerhaven, Germany (1948), who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star in Vietnam. He was working a desk job at the Pentagon in Washington in the early '80s, when he heard the opening ceremonies of the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall, and said, "The dam just broke. Seeing my old comrades squelched my fears of attempting to write; I had to tell our story of the war and how it really was." His books include Charlie Mike (1985), The Last Run (1987), and The Hill (1989).



"Give me some light!" cries Hamlet's
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. "Light! Light!" cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it's dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother's childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.

"Taking Down the Tree" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems © Graywolf Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It was on this day in 1521 that Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther for condemning the Catholic Church in his 95 theses. Luther was a professor of biblical interpretation at the time in Germany, and he could find no text in scripture that permitted the church to make money by selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins.

On this day in 1841, the whaler Acushnet sailed from New Bedford with Herman Melville (books by this author) on board. His father had lost his fortune, and Melville had no money to continue his schooling. A year of farming proved unsatisfactory, and he decided to go to sea. He wrote, "A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

It's the birthday of Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster in Belgium (1840), the priest who served the leper colony on the Hawaiian island of Kaluapapa. At that time, victims were dumped off the boat in the shallows because the captains were terrified to go ashore. Doctors left medicine on the beach and fled. Damien, however, dressed the wounds of his patients himself, ate with them, and buried them when they died. Eventually he developed the illness himself, and he died on the island, having roofed its buildings and made its hospital beds with his own hands. He said, "I would not be cured if the price of the cure was that I must leave the island and give up my work... I am perfectly resigned to my lot. Do not feel sorry for me."

It's the birthday of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien, (books by this author) born in South Africa (1892). In addition to The Lord of the Rings (1954) trilogy, Tolkien also wrote and illustrated children's stories.



Donna Laura, they called my grandmother when they saw her
     sitting in the doorway, sewing delicate
tablecloths and linens, hours of sewing bent over the cloth, an
     occupation for a lady, Donna Laura,

with her big house falling to ruins around her head, Donna
     Laura, whose husband left for Argentina
when she was 24, left her with seven children and no money and
     her life in that southern Italian village

where the old ladies watched her from their windows so that she
     could not have taken a breath without
everyone knowing, Donna Laura who each
day sucked on the
     bitter seed of her husbands failure to send

money and to remember her long auburn hair. Donna Laura who
     relied on the kindness of the priest's
"housekeeper" to provide food for her family. Everyone in the
     village knew

my grandmother's fine needlework could not support seven
     children, but everyone pretended
not to see the housekeeper carrying food to Donna Laura each
     day. Even when she was 90,

She still lived in that mountain house. Was her heart a bitter
     raisin, her anger so deep
it could have cut a road through the mountain? I touch the
     tablecloth she made,

the delicate scrollwork, try to reach back to Donna Laura, feel
     her life shaping itself into laced patterns
and scalloped edges from all those years between her young
     womanhood and old age.

Only this cloth remains, old and perfect still, turning her
     bitterness into art
to teach her granddaughters and great granddaughters to spin
     sorrow into gold.

"Donna Laura" by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from Italian Women in Black Dresses. © Guernica Editions, Inc., 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the inventor of calculus, the mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, born in Woolsthorpe, England (1643). He solved many mysteries of physics involving light, optics, gravity, and motion. Newton always gave credit to his scientific predecessors for his achievements, and he wrote in his journal, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.".

It's the birthday of one of the Grimm brothers, Jacob Grimm, (books by this author) born in Hanau, Germany (1785), who, with his younger brother Wilhelm, collected over 200 German folk tales of the early 19th century and published them as Grimm's Fairy Tales (1812), including "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "Snow White."

It's the birthday of Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, (books by this author) born in Ganzhou, China (1940), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2000. He was educated in Chinese schools before the revolution, and was once forced to burn a suitcase full of manuscripts when he was sent to a re-education camp. He started writing again after his release, but his plays and stories still aroused concern from party officials. In 1986, his play The Other Shore was banned. He fled the country and settled in Paris, where he still lives today. In addition to his plays, Gao Xingjian has authored the books Soul Mountain (1999) and One Man's Bible (2002), and he also exhibits his ink paintings around the world.



Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
In the kernel you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel —
Children, leave the string alone!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
With the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
he lives — he then unties the string.

"Warning to Children" by Robert Graves, from The Complete Poems. © Penguin Books Ltd., 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1933 that construction on the Golden Gate Bridge began in San Francisco, California.

It's the birthday of Umberto Eco, born in the Piedmont region of Italy (1932). He became one of the most renowned scholars in his field in part because he was so productive. He taught himself to walk faster, eat faster, and shave faster, all in an effort to get more work done. He once said, "I could work in the shower if I had plastic paper."

Then, one day, an Italian fiction publisher called him up and asked him if he'd like to contribute to a collection of detective fiction written by academics. Eco had never written any fiction, but the idea intrigued him, so he told the publisher that he would work on something. He got the idea of a murder mystery set in the Middle Ages, and he wrote about a Franciscan friar who stumbles upon a series of interrelated deaths in the Italian abbey he is visiting. He filled the book with the history of the 14th century, as well as philosophy and theology. He also used every trick he'd ever learned from studying detective novels and spy movies to create his protagonist, William of Baskerville.

When Eco finished the novel, titled The Name of the Rose, he thought that his publishers were being way too optimistic when they ordered 30,000 copies to be printed. But when it came out in 1980, The Name of the Rose sold 2 million copies. He has continued writing novels since then, including Foucault's Pendulum (1988) and The Island of the Day Before (1995).

Umberto Eco once wrote, "The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else."


It was on this day in 1825 that the writer Alexandre Dumas fought his first duel at the age of 23. He lost the battle and a bit of dignity as well — his pants fell down as he stood opposite his opponent. Later in his career, Dumas wrote stories of duels and the adventures of headstrong heroes in his books The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask.



Nothing goes on in his head.
It all goes on in his glands,
his muscles, his nose.
He chases every squirrel
every time he sees one,
barks and lunges at every cat;
he'd eat every bit of garbage
on the road if I didn't snap his lead hard.
He doesn't care in a way I can't.
He doesn't confuse past with present;
his only language is what's now
and under his black pads.
He's the perfect one, in fact,
to talk with, in the rain and wind
of January, when winter needs talking to
and writing down to bone-cold.
As with the many names of God,
I repeat his name often-he doesn't know
my name, he doesn't know this
is winter, he doesn't know
he could kill me with those teeth.
He listens to my chatter, my hum,
my chikk-chikk like a squirrel;
my noises keep him interested
and unworried. He scribbles
along the scent of air, his nails click
on wet black stones, he pulls his way
toward red lights on Fair Oaks Avenue,
he leads me back to start.

"Black Dog" by James DenBoer, from Stonework. © Swan Scythe Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of French book illustrator Gustave Doré, born in Strasbourg, France, in 1832, the most prolific and famous illustrator in Europe in the 19th century. Doré was a child prodigy; his drawings were noticed by the time he was five. He never took art lessons, but by the age of 16 he'd moved to Paris and become the highest paid illustrator in France. His most famous illustrations adorned the pages of Dante's Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, and Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Doré's and Poe's names are given equal billing on the cover of the earliest editions of Poe's poem. The Raven was Doré's only U.S. commission, and he died as he was finishing the engravings for it, in 1883.

It's the birthday of journalist, poet, and biographer Carl Sandburg born in Galesburg, Illinois (1878). He started traveling as a hobo in 1897 and collected nearly 300 folk songs, which were published in The American Songbag (1927). In 1922, he came out with the children's book Rootabaga Stories, and his publisher suggested that he try writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln for children. Instead, he wrote a six-volume chronicle of Lincoln's life for adults, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for its volumes on Lincoln during the Civil War. In 1945, Sandburg moved with his wife and her herd of prize-winning goats to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Complete Poems (1951).

It's the birthday of author and philosopher Alan Watts, born in Chislehurst, England (1915), who interpreted Eastern philosophy for the Western world. His most well-known books include The Meaning of Happiness (1940), The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for the Age of Anxiety (1950), and The Way of Zen (1957). He once said, "To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float."

It's the birthday of French military leader Saint Joan of Arc, known as "the Maid of Orleans," born in Domrémy, France (1412), to peasant-stock parents. At the age of 13, she began to hear voices and see visions she believed came from saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret. These saints urged her to embark on a divine mission to help Charles Dauphin (later King Charles IV of France) and save France, embroiled at that time in the Hundred Years' War with England. She went to Charles and told her story; Charles sent her before a board of theologians who approved her religious claims; he then provided her with troops to lead into battle. Dressed as a male soldier, her hair shorn, carrying a white banner symbolic of God's blessing on the French campaign, Joan guided them to a decisive victory for France. Charles was later crowned king with Joan at his side. At age 18, Joan was divinely led to embark on another campaign against the English at Compiégne near Paris, this time without the support of Charles. She was captured by the Burgundian allies of the English, and was tried for heresy and sorcery at the ecclesiastical court in Rouen. She was burned in the Old Market Square in Rouen in 1431 at the age of 19. Years later, the Church reexamined her case and found her innocent.



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