Mar. 11, 2002

Biblical Also-Rans

by Charles Harper Webb

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Poem: "Biblical Also-Rans," by Charles Harper Webb from Liver (University of Wisconsin Press).

Biblical Also-Rans

Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, Carmi,
Jemuel, Ohad, Zohar, Shuni:
one Genesis mention's all you got.

Ziphion, Muppim, Arodi: lost
in a list even the most devout skip over
like small towns on the road to L.A.

How tall were you, Shillim?
What was your favorite color, Ard?
Did you love your wife, Iob?

Not even her name survives.
Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain-
these are the stars crowds surge to see.

Each hour thousands of Josephs,
Jacobs, Benjamins are born.
How many Oholibamahs? How many

Mizzahs draw first breath today?
Gatam, Kenaz, Reuel? Sidemen
in the band. Waiters who bring

the Perignon and disappear.
Yet they loved dawn's garnet light
as much as Moses did. They drank

wine with as much delight.
I thought my life would line me up
with Samuel, Isaac, Joshua.

Instead I stand with Basemath, Hoglah,
Ammihud. Theirs are the names
I honor; theirs, the deaths I feel,

their children's tears loud as any
on the corpse of Abraham, their smiles
as missed, the earth as desolate

without them: Pebbles on a hill.
Crumbs carried off by ants.
Jeush. Dishan. Nahath. Shammah.

It's the birthday of British poet and critic D.J. Enright, born in Leamington, Warwickshire, England (1920). He translated Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and edited a number of anthologies, including the Oxford Book of Death. Enright wrote about Japan, "The Japanese language is such that by the time you know it sufficiently well for your knowledge to make any vital difference, it is probable that you will be too enervated…to write about the Japanese people. You may not even notice them anymore."

It's the birthday of the physicist and mathematician Joseph Bertrand, born in Paris, France (1822). Bertrand published important work on probability, theories of curves and surfaces, and thermodynamics, and he translated some of the work of the German mathematician Gauss into French. He was the first to conjecture that between every whole number greater than three and twice that number, there would be at least one prime number-but he couldn't come up with a proof.

It's the birthday of the writer Louise d'Epinay, born in Valenciennes, France (1726). She wrote several books about education, as well as an autobiographical novel, but she is remembered now for the brilliant gatherings she held in her Paris salon. The young Mozart performed there, and Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot were regular visitors.

It's the birthday of Italian poet Torquato Tasso, born in Sorrento in 1544. He won patronage at the court of the Cardinal d'Este in Ferrara, where he started work on an epic poem about the First Crusade, which he called Jerusalem Delivered. But he grew more and more concerned that he was morally unfit as a Catholic, and that his poem would somehow offend the Church authorities. He spent a long time revising it to please them. He began, slowly, to go mad. He imagined that people were plotting against him, talked to people no one else could see, and attacked a servant with a knife. His patrons committed him to an asylum. Finally, in 1581, two of his friends published a version of Jerusalem Delivered. It won great popular success. Pope Clement the
Eighth made arrangements to crown Tasso poet laureate, but Tasso died a few days before the ceremony was to take place.

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