Jan. 18, 2002

Blue Streak

by Heather McHugh

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Poem: "Blue Streak," by Heather McHugh from A World of Difference (Houghton Mifflin Co.).

Blue Streak

During the twentieth century chance
was the form we adored-you had to
generate it by machine. Kisses came
in twisted foil, we quickened the clock
with digitalis, invented the pacemaker
in case we fell in love. The whiz kids
were our only ancestors; the buzz saw,
working west, had left its mark.
My children, this is history:
we made it; millions counted;
one-of-a-kind was a lie; and the poets,
who should have spoken for us, were busy
panning landscapes, gunning
their electrics, going
I I I I I .

On this day in 1919, the Versailles Peace Conference, which sought a formal end to World War One, officially opened. American President Woodrow Wilson argued for an agreement that would be fair to both the victorious Allies and the Central Powers (Germany and the Ottoman Empire.) His Fourteen Points called for unselfish financial terms, the restoration of territories captured during the war, and the creation of a League of Nations. The Allies opposed most of Wilson's plan, and imposed harsh financial terms on Germany-one of the conditions that led to the Second World War.

On this day in 1912, British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his team reached the South Pole, only to find a tent left behind by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had beaten them there by a month. All five members of Scott's party died on the return trip. In his diary were the lines he wrote just a few days before he died: "Had we lived I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman."

It's the birthday of English suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst, born in London (1882). Along with her mother, Emmeline, and older sister Christabel, she braved hunger strikes and jail in their campaign for women's suffrage. Her strategy of linking class and gender did not endear her to more mainstream suffrage groups, however, and her mother and sister expelled her from the organization they had founded, The Women's Social and Political Union. After women received the vote in 1918, she became an active opponent of racism and fascism.

On this date in 1778, Captain James Cook became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands, during his third voyage of discovery. He claimed them for England, and renamed them the Sandwich Islands, in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. Cook thought the Hawaiian Islands would make a useful port, since they had plentiful supplies of food and fresh water. Although the Hawaiians were friendly at first, their relationship with the British explorers rapidly deteriorated. On a return visit in 1779, Cook and his crew were attacked, and Cook was killed.

It's the birthday of French lawyer and political philosopher Charles Montesquieu, born in the Chateau La Brede, near Bordeaux, France (1689). His masterpiece, The Spirit of Laws (1748), studied the three main types of government-republics, monarchies, and despots-and concluded that an area's climate and geography affect the form of government which evolves there. "Republics," he said, "end in luxury; monarchies in poverty." He also believed that governmental powers should be separated and balanced to guarantee individual rights and freedom.

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