May 24, 2003


by Charles Simic

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Poem: "Ghosts," by Charles Simic from Walking the Black Cat (Harcourt, Brace & Company).


It's Mr. Brown looking much better
Than he did in the morgue.
He's brought me a huge carp
In a bloodstained newspaper.
What an odd visit.
I haven't thought of him in years.

Linda is with him and so is Sue.
Two pale and elegant fading memories
Holding each other by the hand.
Even their lipstick is fresh
Despite all the scientific proofs
To the contrary.

Is Linda going to cook the fish?
She turns and gazes in the direction
Of the kitchen while Sue
Continues to watch me mournfully.
I don't believe any of it,
And still I'm scared stiff.

I know of no way to respond,
So I do nothing.
The windows are open. The air's thick
With the scent of magnolias.
Drops of evening rain are dripping
From the dark and heavy leaves.
I take a deep breath; I close my eyes.

Dear specters, I don't even believe
You are here, so how is it
You're making me comprehend
Things I would rather not know just yet?

It's the way you stare past me
At what must already be my own ghost,
Before taking your leave,
As unexpectedly as you came in,
Without one of us breaking the silence.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky, born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). He dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and had a number of odd jobs, including geologic prospector and boiler-room stoker. During this time, he began writing poetry and learned English and Polish so that he could read work not yet translated into Russian. In the process, he became familiar with the works of Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner. His poetry became quite popular in underground circulation, and he was recognized as one of the leading young poets of his generation. His reputation earned the attention of the secret police, and he was tried and convicted in 1964 of "social parasitism" and sentenced to five years' hard labor in a Siberian work camp. His sentence was commuted after 18 months because of protests from around the world, but after his release he was continually harassed for being a poet and being Jewish. He left Russia in 1972 for the United States, an involuntary exile. He served as visiting poet at several universities, including Columbia and Mount Holyoke, where he taught for 15 years. During his time in the United States, Brodsky wrote poetry primarily in English and adopted the task of translating his prior work himself. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1991-1992. He said, "There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them."

It's the birthday of singer-songwriter Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, born in Duluth, Minnesota (1941). After an uneventful childhood in Hibbing, he moved to Minneapolis in 1959 to study art at the University of Minnesota. It was there that he became interested in the music of Hank Williams and Woodie Guthrie. He listened to their music voraciously, neglected classes, and began to perform in coffee shops under the name "Bob Dylan." In 1961, he dropped out of school and moved to New York, where he became a fixture in the famous folk music scene of Greenwich Village. He also made the acquaintance of his hero Woodie Guthrie, who was in the hospital with a rare disease of the nervous system. Dylan went to his bedside and performed Guthrie's own songs for him. His performances in New York earned him a recording contract, but it wasn't until his second album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) that he became famous, with such songs as "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and "Blowin' in the Wind."

On this day in 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegraph message from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. Morse sent the line, "What hath God wrought?", a Bible verse taken from Numbers 23:23. Morse devised a series of dots and dashes to represent the alphabet, which came to be known as "Morse code." The first transcontinental telegraph line was completed in 1861, which brought an end to the Pony Express as the fastest form of communication. It marked the beginning of the telecommunications industry.

On this day in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to the public. Taking nearly 14 years to complete, it spans the East River of New York City and links Brooklyn and Manhattan. Its 1.3 mile length made it the longest suspension bridge in the world when it first opened. On its first day of operation, more than 150,000 people crossed over. They each paid a one-cent toll.

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