Aug. 21, 2003

To His Lover, That She Be Not Overdressed

by X. J. Kennedy

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Poem: "To His Lover, That She Be Not Overdressed," by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule (Johns Hopkins University Press).

And why take ye thought for raiment?
—Matthew 6:28

The lilies of the field
That neither toil nor spin
Stand dazzlingly revealed
In not a thing but skin

And in that radiant state
Sheer essences they wear.
Take heed, my fashion plate.
Be so arrayed. Go bare.

Literary Notes:

On this day in 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. It was one of the most audacious art thefts of all time. Vincenzo Peruggia walked into the museum, headed straight for the world's most famous painting, took it off the wall, hid it beneath his clothes, and walked out. The whole nation of France was stunned. There was a popular rumor in Paris that the Germans had stolen da Vinci's masterpiece to humiliate the French. Police had no leads until two years later, when Peruggia tried to ransom the painting. He was caught, the painting was unharmed, and the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, where it still is today, with much better security.

On this day in 1858, the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates began in Illinois. Slavery was once again becoming a big issue in America after a quiet 40 years since the Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in territories north of the 36°30' latitude. But in 1858 there was argument about whether slavery should be allowed in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Republican Party had been formed largely to keep slavery out of the western territories. When Lincoln received the Republican nomination to run against democrat Stephen A. Douglas for the Illinois senate, he said, referring to the question of slavery "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Douglas called Lincoln a radical, and Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven debates around Illinois. Each debate lasted three hours. Crowds in the thousands turned out, and newspapers covered the story across the country. Douglas won the election, but during the debates Lincoln had forced him into a position that alienated southern Democrats. Meanwhile, Lincoln won national fame as an eloquent speaker, and when he faced Douglas again in the 1860 presidential race, Lincoln was victorious, becoming the first Republican to be elected to the White House.

It's the birthday of novelist Robert Stone, born in Brooklyn (1937). His first novel, A Hall of Mirrors (1968), was based on time he spent in New Orleans bouncing around from job to job. His second novel, Dog Soldiers (1974), about corruption and the Vietnam War, won the National Book Award. His latest novels are Damascus Gate (1998) and Bay of Souls (2003). Stone said, "I start early in the morning. I'm usually out in the woods with the dog as soon as it gets light; then I drink a whole lot of tea and start as early as I can, and I go as long as I can."

It's the birthday of jazz great Count (William) Basie, born in Red Bank, New Jersey (1904). He started out on the vaudeville circuit through the Midwest and got stranded in Kansas City. He fell in love with the hard-driving jazz there, and became leader of a nine-piece band. One night, while the band was broadcasting on a Kansas City radio station, the announcer called him "Count" to say that he was a jazz "aristocrat," like Duke Ellington. Those broadcasts launched his career. Other pianists were famous for their flashy style, but Basie was known for playing his solos as simply as possible. One of his band members said, "Count don't do nothin'. But it sure sounds good." His classic songs included, "Basie Boogie," "Shorty George," and "One O'Clock Jump."

It's the birthday of poet X. J. Kennedy, born Joseph Charles Kennedy in Dover, New Jersey (1929). He served in the Navy, where his job was to take pictures of sailors on destroyers for their hometown newspapers. On long cruises he could finish his work in a few days, so for the first time in his life he started writing a lot of poetry. He took the pen name X.J. while he was on a ship with a name similar to his own, the U.S.S. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. The crew gave him a hard time about his name, and when he sent his poems to magazines he used the pen name. The New Yorker was the first to publish him, so he thought the "X" was good luck and he kept it. Kennedy's books include Nude Descending a Staircase (1961) and The Lords of Misrule (2002). He is also the author of textbooks and books of poetry for children, including Exploding Gravy: Poems to Make You Laugh (2002).

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