May 6, 2003

Root Cellar

by Theodore Roethke

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Poem: "Root Cellar," by Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Anchor).

Root Cellar

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!--

Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1626, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan Island from the Algonquin Indians for two boxes of hatchets, beads, and pots worth sixty silver guilders, about one hundred dollars.

It's the birthday of director, actor, and screenwriter Orson Welles. He was conceived in Paris, named in Rio de Janeiro, but born, to his disappointment, in Kenosha, Wisconsin (1915), a place he thought held less cache. He was called a child prodigy. He got his start as an actor on the Dublin stage. He starred on Broadway at 19 and formed his own theater at 21. In 1938, his Mercury Theatre on the Air adapted H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds for a CBS radio show. It was so realistic that it caused panic all over the country. It started out with live dance music, but then an announcer broke in with news flashes about "a huge flaming object," a Martian invasion near the town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The New York Times reported that in one hospital in New Jersey, fifteen people were treated for shock and hysteria. In Newark, more than twenty families on one block rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to run from the poison gas. Lawsuits were threatened and Welles apologized, but in fact he was delighted. At age 23, he'd become a household name. When he was just 25, Welles made his first movie, Citizen Kane (1941), one of the most influential films in history. Welles never did have a box-office hit, and ended his career in exile from Hollywood. Kane was the best movie he ever made.

It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell, born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams. His best-known poem is the "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

It's the birthday of writer Gaston Leroux, born in Paris, France (1868). He's best known for his novel The Phantom of the Opera (1910). Phantom is about a hideous singer who haunts the cellars and corridors of the Paris Opera House and becomes the masked lover of a beautiful young understudy. The novel was not very successful, but the story was filmed five times, and the stage musical has sold over 100 million tickets for $3.2 billion.

On this day in 1862, Henry David Thoreau died of tuberculosis. He was fourty-four. Before he died, his aunt asked him if he was at peace with God, and Thoreau replied, "I was not aware that we had quarreled."

It's the birthday of Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Shlomo Freud, in what is now Pribor, Czechoslovakia (1856). He's the founder of psychoanalysis. In 1899 he published his masterwork, The Interpretation of Dreams. He argued that dreams were the fulfillment of our wishes, and that neuroses could be traced back to repressed childhood experiences and desires. He's responsible for everyday phrases like, "You're being defensive," and "You're rationalizing," and for the "Freudian slip." His son said, "I didn't know the full facts of life until I was 17. My father never talked about his work." He wrote, "I have found little that is 'good' about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think."

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