Mar. 4, 2003

The Only Day in Existence

by Billy Collins

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Poem: "The Only Day in Existence," by Billy Collins from Nine Horses (Random House).

The Only Day in Existence

The morning sun is so pale
I could be looking at a ghost
in the shape of a window,
a tall, rectangular spirit
peering down at me now in my bed,
about to demand that I avenge
the murder of my father.

But this light is only the first line
in the five-act play of this day-
the only day in existence-
or the opening chord of its long song,
or think of what is permeating
these thin bedroom curtains

as the beginning of a lecture
I must listen to until dark,
a curious student in a V-neck sweater,
angled into the wooden chair of his life,
ready with notebook and a chewed-up pencil,
quiet as a goldfish in winter,
serious as a compass at sea,
eager to absorb whatever lesson

this damp, overcast Tuesday
has to teach me,
here in the spacious classroom of the world
with its long walls of glass,
its heavy, low-hung ceiling.

Literary Notes:

In 1789 on this day, the United States Constitution went into effect.

Composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi was born on this day in Venice, Italy, 1678. He composed music while working as an ordained priest. He didn't enjoy his day job, though, and he sometimes left the altar in the middle of celebrating mass to quickly jot down musical ideas. He is best known for The Four Seasons (1725).

It's the birthday of English novelist Alan Sillitoe, born in Nottingham, England (1928). He worked at a series of factory jobs, and got to know writer Robert Graves who suggested he write about his hometown of Nottingham. He did, and the result was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), a novel about Arthur Seaton, a lathe operator in a bicycle factory who has affairs with two sisters, both of whom are married. He is also remembered for his short story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1959).

It's the birthday of crime novelist James Ellroy, born in Los Angeles, California (1948). His parents where divorced and when he was ten years old, and during one of the weekends he spent with his father, Ellroy's mother was murdered. The crime was never solved. Ellroy and his father resided in a small apartment on Beverly Boulevard in a neighborhood between Hancock Park and Hollywood. Each week his father gave him two books, but because Ellroy could not get enough to read, he started to shoplift at Chevalier's, the local bookstore. He graduated from reading Ken Holt and the Hardy Boys to reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane. He went through a bad spell in his youth, was in prison, went through heavy drinking, used drugs, was homeless for a time. He then went into AA, got work as a caddy at a country club and began writing novels. His L.A. Confidential (1990) was a best seller. In 1994, after years of being haunted by the murder of his mother, he decided to try to find her murderer. He wrote the memoir, My Dark Places (1996), about the search and though he didn't solve the crime, he wrote that he recovered a truer memory of his mother.

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his publisher saying he'd just finished a new book -- The Old Man And The Sea. The book began, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone 84 days now without taking a fish." It was his last novel and his shortest, and it won him his first Pulitzer, and two years later he received the Nobel Prize.

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