Sep. 1, 2003

The Palms

by W. S. Merwin

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Poem: "The Palms," by W.S. Merwin, from Travels (Alfred A. Knopf).

The Palms

Each is alone in the world
and on some the flowers
are of one sex only
they stand as though they had no secrets
and one by one the flowers emerge from the sheaths
into the air
where the other flowers are
it happens in silence except for the wind
often it happens in the dark
with the earth carrying the sound of water
most of the flowers themselves are small and green by day
and only a few are fragrant
but in time the fruits are beautiful
and later still their children
whether they are seen or not
many of the fruits are no larger than peas
but some are like brains of black marble
and some have more than one seed inside them
some are full of milk of one taste or another
and on a number of them there is a writing
from long before speech
and the children resemble each other
with the same family preference
for shade when young
in which colors deepen
and the same family liking for water
and warmth
and each family deals with the wind in its own way
and with the sun and the water
some of the leaves are crystals others are stars
some are bows some are bridges and some
are hands
in a world without hands
they know of each other first from themselves
some are fond of limestone and a few cling to high cliffs
they learn from the splashing water
and the falling water and the wind
much later the elephant
will learn from them
the muscles will learn from their shadows
ears will begin to hear in them
the sound of water
and heads will float like black nutshells
on an unmeasured ocean neither rising nor falling
to be held up at last and named for the sea

Literary Notes:

Today is Labor Day. The first Labor Day was celebrated one hundred and twenty years ago, on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. It was the idea of the Central Labor Union in New York City, which organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders. The holiday was intended to celebrate labor unions and to recognize the achievements of the American worker. For most Americans, Labor Day marks the end of summer—and the last day before the start of the school year.

It's the birthday of Rosa Guy, born in Trinidad (1925). She's the co-founder of the Harlem Writer's Guild, and she's written a number of novels for young adults. The Broadway musical Once on this Island is based on her novella My Love, My Love: or, The Peasant Girl (1985)—which is, in turn, a version of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid."

It's the birthday of Eleanor Burford Hibbert, born in London (1906). She wrote 200 novels under many pseudonyms, including Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, and Phillipa Carr. The Victoria Holt titles far outsold the others; together, sales totaled in the millions.

On this day in 1904, Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe. She was the first blind-and-deaf student ever to graduate from any college anywhere. When Keller met Woodrow Wilson several years later, he asked her why she had chosen Radcliffe when she could have been admitted to a less challenging school. "Because they didn't want me," she replied promptly.

It's the birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs, born in Chicago (1875). After he was married, he went through 10 different office and sales jobs in 10 years. When money ran short and his wife started pawning her jewelry, he decided he could probably write stories just as bad as the stuff in pulp magazines. His first series, Under the Moons of Mars, starred John Carter, who was teleported to Mars after a battle with the Apaches in Arizona. Tarzan of the Apes was published in the October issue of All-Story magazine, and Burroughs got $700 for it. He decided to quit and write full time. He wrote dozens of books, bought a huge ranch in California, and saw a town called Tarzana grow up around it.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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