Apr. 1, 2003

Waiting for the Fire

by Philip Appleman

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Poem: "Waiting for the Fire," by Philip Appleman from New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996 (University of Arkansas Press).

Waiting for the Fire

Not just the temples, lifting
lotuses out of the tangled trees,
not the moon on cool canals,
the profound smell of the paddies,
evening fires in open doorways,
fish and rice the perfect end of wisdom;
but the small bones, the grace, the voices like
clay bells in the wind, all wasted.
If we ever thought of the wreckage
of our unnatural acts,
we would never sleep again
without dreaming a rain of fire:
somewhere God is bargaining for Sodom,
a few good men could save the city; but
in that dirty corner of the mind
we call the soul
the only wash that purifies is tears,
and after all our body counts,
our rape, our mutilations,
nobody here is crying; people who would weep
at the death of a dog
stroll these unburned streets dry-eyed.
But forgetfulness will never walk
with innocence; we save our faces
at the risk of our lives, needing
the wisdom of losses, the gift of despair,
or we could kill again.
Somewhere God is haggling over Sodom:
for the sake of ten good people
I will spare the land.

Where are all those volunteers
to hold back the fire? Look:
when the moon rises over the sea,
no matter where you stand,
the path of the light comes to you.


Literary Notes:

Today is April Fool's Day. No one is quite sure how jokes and pranks became a part of this day, but there are several ideas about how the day came about. Some people say that April Fool's Day began in France in 1582 when the Gregorian replaced the Julian calendar, making New Year's day fall on January 1st instead of April 1st, and those who either forgot the change or ignored it were teased as being "April fools." As recorded in Poor Robin's Almanac (1790):

"The first of April, some do say,
Is set apart for All Fools' Day.
But why the people call it so,
Nor I, nor they themselves do know.
But on this day are people sent
On purpose for pure merriment."

It's the birthday of the French poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, born in Marseille, France (1868). He grew up in a wealthy and cultured family, and was influenced by his father who was an economist and a poet. His first play, Le Gant Rouge (The Red Glove), was produced in 1888. He is best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), about the heroic soldier who had many gifts but believed that no woman could ever love him because of his enormous nose, which Cyrano calls a peninsula. Cyrano said (of his nose):

'Tis enormous! Old Flathead, empty-headed meddler, know
That I am proud possessing such appendice.
'Tis well known, a big nose is indicative
Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous,
Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such
As you can never dare to dream yourself,
Rascal contemptible! For that witless face
That my hand soon will come to cuff--is all

It's the birthday of the pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, born in Novgorod, Russia (1873). He grew to be a tall, imposing man (Igor Stravinsky called him "a six and a half foot scowl"), and his hands were so big they could span an interval of thirteen keys on the piano. He escaped from Russia just before the Revolution, and spent most of the rest of his life in the United States. When Vladimir Horowitz arrived in New York City, the two pianists sealed their friendship by going down into the basement of Steinway and Sons and playing Rachmaninoff's own Third Piano Concerto (1909). Horowitz played the solo part on one piano, and Rachmaninoff the orchestra reduction on another.

It's the birthday of Anne McCaffrey, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1926). She is best known for a series of novels beginning with Dragonflight (1968), about a planet named Pern, where humans communicate telepathically with large, multicolored dragons. She was the first science fiction writer ever to make it onto the New York Times Bestseller list and did so with the third volume in her Pern series, The White Dragon (1979).

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Samuel Delany, born in New York (1942). His novel Dhalgren (1974), a story about a young bisexual man searching for identity in a large, decaying city, has sold over a million copies.

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