Mar. 14, 2002

History Book

by Thomas Lux

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Poem: "History Books," by Thomas Lux from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

History Books

That is, their authors, leave out
one thing: the smell. How sour, no rancid-bad cheese
and sweat-the narrow corridors of Hitler's bunker
during the last days powdered
by plaster shaken down
under bomb after bomb. Or (forward or backward
through time, history books take you) downstream
a mile or two from a river-crossing ambush
a corpse washes ashore
or catches in branches
and bloats in the sun. The carrion eaters
who do not fly
come by their noses: the thick,
ubiquitous, sick sweet smell.
Most of history, however,
is banal, not bloody: the graphite and wood smell
of a pencil factory, the glue-fertilizer-paper-
(oh redolent!) shoe-hat- (ditto malodor
and poisonous) chemical-salt cod-
tractor-etc. factories - and each one
peopled by people: groins, armpits, feet.
A bakery, during famine; guards, smoking, by the door.
Belowdecks, two years out, dead calm, tropics.
And wind a thousand miles all night combing
the tundra: chilled grasses, polar bear droppings,
glacial exhalations….Open
the huge book of the past: whoosh!: a staggering cloud
of stinks, musks
and perfumes, swollen pheromones, almond
and anise, offal dumps, mass graves exhumed, flower
heaps, sandalwood bonfires, milk vapors
from a baby's mouth, all of us
wading hip-deep through the endless
waftings, one bottomless soup
of smells: primal, atavistic - sniff, sniff, sniff.

It's the birthday of Italian novelist Italo Calvino, born in Cuba (1923). His parents were traveling botanists. They returned to Italy when he was two, and he was brought up in San Remo, surrounded by rare and curious plants. During the Second World War he was drafted into the Fascists and escaped into the Alps, where he joined the Communist resistance and fought the Germans. He said later that sitting around the fire at night and hearing the resistance fighters swapping war tales was his first lesson in storytelling. He worked as a journalist, and he also compiled several volumes of Italian folktales. His later novels drew reporting and fantasy together; they described dream-like events in disinterested prose.

It's the birthday of physicist Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, Germany, (1879). In 1905, while he was still working as a patent examiner, he published four papers in Germany's leading physics journal. Each one dealt with a separate area of physics, and each one broke new ground in its field. He did not win the Nobel Prize for the paper he had written about the Theory of Relativity-it was for one of the other papers, a description of the photoelectric effect. A clergyman in New York once sent him a telegram which said, "Do you believe in God? Stop. Prepaid reply fifty words." Einstein's reply used only thirty. "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists…"

It's the birthday of playwright Lady Augusta Gregory, born in County Galway, Ireland (1852). In 1894, she met the poet W. B. Yeats for the first time; he was interested in Irish folklore, but he could not speak Irish, and her translations impressed him. Together they set about to start a theatre where contemporary Irish drama could be staged. The trouble was that there weren't many contemporary Irish plays. Lady Gregory, who was now fifty, co-wrote plays with Yeats and wrote many more of her own. The Irish Literary Theatre was renamed the Abbey Theatre in 1904, and she remained one of its directors until she died.

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