Mar. 19, 2003

Last-Minute Message for a Time Capsule

by Philip Appleman

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Poem: "Last-Minute Message for a Time Capsule," by Philip Appleman from New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996 (University of Arkansas Press).

Last-Minute Message For a Time Capsule

I have to tell you this, whoever you are:
that on one summer morning here, the ocean
pounded in on tumbledown breakers,
a south wind, bustling along the shore,
whipped the froth into little rainbows,
and a reckless gull swept down the beach
as if to fly were everything it needed.
I thought of your hovering saucers,
looking for clues, and I wanted to write this down,
so it wouldn't be lost forever -
that once upon a time we had
meadows here, and astonishing things,
swans and frogs and luna moths
and blue skies that could stagger your heart.
We could have had them still,
and welcomed you to earth, but
we also had the righteous ones
who worshipped the True Faith, and Holy War.
When you go home to your shining galaxy,
say that what you learned
from this dead and barren place is
to beware the righteous ones.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of English explorer and scholar Sir Richard Francis Burton, born in Devonshire, England (1821). He lived at a time when Europeans were aggressively searching for -- and claiming -- the sources of the world's wealth. He used his talent for reconnaissance, mapping, and languages to chart new trade routes, identify and catalogue valuable natural resources, and to analyze the political, religious, and economic systems in foreign countries. While working for the East India Company, he traveled widely and acquired thorough knowledge of Persian, Afghan, and Arabic languages. Under various disguises, he made a famous journey to the Muslim holy cities and later wrote about it in a vivid account, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855-56). He is most famous for discovering the source of the Nile River in Africa with his partner, John Hanning Speke, in 1858. Burton was a great storyteller, and had great stories to tell. Once in Berbera he got attacked and a spear was driven through his jaw. And once in Damascus, he barely escaped an ambush. He said, "I was never more flattered in my life than to think that it would take three hundred men to kill me." He devoted his last years chiefly to literature, publishing remarkable translations of The Arabian Nights (1885-88), The Karma Sutra (1883), and The Perfumed Garden (1886).

It's the birthday of American writer Philip Roth, born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). Roth was born into a Jewish, middle-class family during the heart of the Depression. Roth had his first success with his short-story collection Good-bye Columbus (1959). These stories all involve a hero's attempt to make sense of an alien culture. In each story both the hero and the alien culture are Jewish, but other than that they don't have much in common. The title novella is about Neil Klugman, from a lower-class Newark neighborhood, who is in love with Brenda Patimkin, from the affluent suburb of Short Hills, New Jersey. Roth's best-known novel is Portnoy's Complaint (1969), the widely acclaimed bestseller which takes place on the couch of a psychoanalyst. Roth wrote, "A Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die." The novel was noted for his use of obscenity. Roth said, "I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you -- it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists."

It's the birthday of author Irving Wallace, born in Chicago (1916). Although often scorned by critics, his 16 novels and 17 works of nonfiction have sold some 250 million copies worldwide. Some of Wallace's best-known books are The Chapman Report (1960), The Man (1964), and The Prize (1963).

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