Jul. 18, 2003

A Blind Man at the Museum

by Howard Nemerov

FRIDAY, 18 JULY 2003
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"A Blind Man at the Museum," by Howard Nemerov from Inside the Onion (University of Chicago Press).

A Blind Man at the Museum

His wife is pushing a pram with twins before them,
He keeps in touch with a hand against her back,
And going sightless along the galleries
Listens to her mild voice describing things
While the speechless twins, like seeing eyes, look up.

They walk past windows giving on the past
Of grazing cows and crucifixions and
Self-portraits where the painter's mirrored eyes
Reflect themselves unseeing in the plane
Eternity of art, unable to look out.

A strangeness, just. But I imagined him
As having been, before he lost his sight,
Himself a painter, or if not that a great
Authority who has in his head by heart
Much that she reads the names, dates, titles of

To the twins who see but cannot know or say
The scumble of the black impast'd skull
Behind all this, the agony of the eye
That sees the hand that acts but cannot see
Beneath the finish of the age, the art.

She sees, and says, they slowly push along
Between the walls, his hand against her back,
The seeing eyes, like pilot-fish, roll on,
A dumbshow of predicaments untold
Moving familiarly among the worlds.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of American short-story writer Jessamyn West, born in North Vernon, Indiana and raised in southern California (1902). Her family had Quaker roots, and she took many of the stories her mother told her and turned them into a collection of short stories called The Friendly Persuasion (1945). She once said that the four cornerstones of her life were "family, words on paper, the world of nature, and privacy."

It's the birthday of clown, painter, composer, and children's author Red Skelton, born Richard Red Skelton in Vincennes, Indiana (1906). His father was a clown in the traveling Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus. Red spent his life in the circus, on the radio and television, and writing and illustrating children's books. Red became a circus clown in his teens. In his many decades as a radio and TV show host, Red invented characters with names like, "Clem Kaddiddlehopper," "Sheriff Dead Eye," "Willie Lump Lump," "Bolivar Shagnasty," "San Fernando Red," "Cauliflower McPugg," and the best known, "Freddie the Freeloader." He composed over 2,500 pieces of music in his life, including thirteen symphonies. He wrote countless children's books, and wrote and illustrated many coloring books. And he was an accomplished painter who painted clowns in different costumes and settings.

The first edition of Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler, was published on this day in 1925. It was ignored by almost everyone, as was the second volume, which appeared in 1926. But when Hitler and his Nazi party began to gain power, they pressured the public to buy the book. By the time Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933, it was neck-and-neck with the Bible at the top of the German bestseller lists. It was being passed out by Hitler's party officials to newlyweds as a gift. Norman Cousins once pointed out that, counting both the Holocaust and the soldiers killed in the war, "For every word in Mein Kampf, 125 lives were to be lost; for every page, 4,700; for every chapter, more than 1,200,000 lives." Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice."

It's the birthday of playwright Clifford Odets, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1906). He's best known for the plays Waiting for Lefty (1935) and Golden Boy (1937). He joined an acting company in his twenties, and eventually started writing and producing its plays. Waiting for Lefty (1935) was his first big success. It was about a taxi drivers' strike, and he used "plants" in the audience to create the illusion that the strikers' meeting was going on at the same time.

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