Feb. 10, 2003

By a Swimming Pool Outside Siracusa

by Billy Collins

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Poem: "By a Swimming Pool Outside Siracusa," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House).

By a Swimming Pool Outside Siracusa

All afternoon I have been struggling
to communicate in Italian
with Roberto and Giuseppe who have begun
to resemble the two male characters
in my Italian for Beginners,
the ones always shopping, eating,
or inquiring about the times of trains.

Now I can feel my English slipping away,
like chlorinated water through my fingers.

I have made important pronouncements
in this remote limestone valley
with its trickle of a river.
I stated that it seems hotter
today even than it was yesterday
and that swimming is very good for you,
very beneficial, you might say.
I also posed burning questions
about the hours of the archaeological museum
and the location of the local necropolis.

But now I am alone in the evening light
which has softened the white cliffs,
and I have had a little gin in a glass with ice
which has softened my mood or-
how would you say in English-
has allowed my thoughts to traverse my brain
with greater gentleness, shall we say,

or, to put it less literally,
this drink has extended permission
to my mind to feel-what's the word?-
a friendship with the vast sky
which is very-give me a minute-very blue
but with much great paleness
at this special time of day, or as we say in America, now.

It's the birthday of the man who published the Los Angeles Times, the founder of a great publishing dynasty of the time, Harrison Gray Otis, born on a farm near Marietta, Ohio in 1837. He fought in the Civil War, raised Angora goats on a farm in northern California, and worked as a treasury agent on the Seal Islands off of Alaska before becoming editor of the L.A. Times. Los Angeles historian Morrow Mayo said Otis "was a large, aggressive man, with a walrus mustache, a goatee, and a warlike demeanor. He was a holy terror in his newspaper plant; his natural voice was that of a game-warden roaring at seal poachers."

It's the birthday of British poet and essayist Charles Lamb, born in London in 1775. He said, "A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins."

It's the birthday of poet, playwright, and composer Bertolt Brecht, born in Augsburg, Germany in 1898. His books were banned in Germany during the 1930s, and he went into exile, first to Denmark and then to the United States, where he spent six years working with films in Hollywood. He said, "The intellectual isolation here is enormous. Compared to Hollywood, Svendborg is a world center." He wrote plays while in Hollywood including The Life of Galileo (1943), The Good Person of Szechwan (1943) and Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) in which he said "What they could do with round here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization."

It's the birthday of the poet and novelist who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak, born in Moscow in 1890. In the 1930s and '40s, Pasternak felt the brunt of Russia's Stalinist regime, as Russian authorities censored most of his works. He turned to translation, selecting such authors as Shakespeare, Goethe, Verlaine, and Rilke. Pasternak finished Doctor Zhivago in 1956, but it was immediately banned in the Soviet Union. The novel is epic and partly autobiographical and follows the lives of over sixty characters through the first half of twentieth century Russian history.

It's the birthday of African-American opera singer Leontyne Price, born in Laurel, Mississippi in 1927. She said, "Art is the only thing you cannot punch a button for. You must do it the old-fashioned way. Stay up and really burn the midnight oil. There are no compromises."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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