Apr. 14, 2003


by David Ignatow

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Poem: Untitled Poem by David Ignatow from New & Collected Poems, 1970-1985 (Wesleyan University Press).

I sink back upon the ground, expecting to die. A voice speaks out of my ear, You are not
going to die, you are being changed into a zebra. You will have black and white stripes
up and down your back and you will love people as you do not now. That is why you
will be changed into a zebra that people will tame and exhibit in a zoo. You will be a
favorite among children and you will love the children in return whom you do not love
now. Zoo keepers will make a pet of you because of your round, sad eyes and musical
bray, and you will love your keeper as you do not now. All is well, then, I tell myself
silently, listening to the voice in my ear speak to me of my future. And what will happen
to you, voice in my ear, I ask silently, and the answer comes at once: I will be your
gentle, musical bray that will help you as a zebra all your days. I will mediate between
the world and you, and I will learn to love you as a zebra whom I did not love as a
human being.

Literary Notes:

It's the anniversary of Black Sunday, on this day in 1935, when a major dust storm hit the plains states. After weeks of dust storms, the day started out clear and sunny. People went outside to enjoy the blue skies; they went to church, they took walks and had picnics. Then, in mid-afternoon, the temperature dropped and a black cloud of dust swept over everything at sixty miles per hour. Woodie Guthrie wrote about it in his collection, Dust Bowl Ballads:

It fell across our city
Like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment
We though it was our doom.

Shortly before midnight on this date in 1912, the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The cruise ship, on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, had half as many lifeboat spaces as passengers, and many of the lifeboats were only partly filled when they were lowered into the water. The sea was about 30 degrees and over 1,500 people drowned in its icy waters. The liner Californian, less than 20 miles away, could have saved most of the passengers had its radio operator been on duty to hear the Titanic's distress calls.

On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., while attending a play. It was the first presidential assassination in U.S. history. At the play's intermission, the President's bodyguard went next door to the saloon for a drink. During the third act, while the audience laughed at a funny line, a 26-year-old actor, John Wilkes Booth, snuck behind the president and shot him at point-blank range.

On this day in 1828, lexicographer Noah Webster published the first edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language. He was 70 years old, and he'd been working on it for more than 35 years. It had 70,000 entries, and it sold out in a little over a year, with more copies in England than America, despite harsh attacks on its "Americanisms" -- spelling "plow" with a "w," for example. He taught himself 26 languages to write the dictionary, including Anglo-Saxon and Sanskrit, and he was the first to document distinctively American words, such as skunk, stampede, and chowder.

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