Sep. 10, 2003

The Size of Spokane

by Heather McHugh

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Poem: "The Size of Spokane," by Heather McHugh, from Hinge and Sign (Wesleyan University Press).

The Size of Spokane

The baby isn't cute. In fact he's
a homely little pale and headlong
stumbler. Still, he's one
of us-the human beings
stuck on flight 295 (Chicago to Spokane);
and when he passes my seat twice
at full tilt this then that direction,
I look down from Lethal Weapon 3 to see
just why. He's

running back and forth
across a sunblazed circle on
the carpet-something brilliant, fallen
from a porthole. So! it's light
amazing him, it's only light, despite
some three and one
half hundred
people, propped in rows
for him to wonder at; it's light
he can't get over, light he can't
investigate enough, however many
zones he runs across it,
flickering himself.

The umpteenth time
I see him coming, I've had
just about enough; but then
he notices me noticing and stops-
one fat hand on my armrest-to
inspect the oddities of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some people cannot walk.
But everyone was
sunstruck once, and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how
astonishing this is? so practiced all our senses
we cannot imagine them? foreseen instead of seeing
all the all there is? Each spectral port,
each human eye

is shot through with a hole, and everything we know
goes in there, where it feeds a blaze. In a flash

the baby's old; Mel Gibson's hundredth comeback seems
less clever; all his chases and embraces
narrow down, while we
fly on (in our
plain radiance of vehicle)

toward what cannot stay small forever.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet who wrote under the initials H.D., Hilda Doolittle, born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1886). She met Ezra Pound when she was a teenager and they fell in love, but her father forced her to break off the relationship. They stayed friends, and Pound brought her armfuls of books to read every day. She followed him to Europe and when she showed him some of her poems, he loved them and sent them to Poetry magazine, signing them for her, "H.D. Imagist." He invented a new school of poetry based on her work that he called Imagism, which broke from formal metered verse and used clear, simple language to describe the world. She went on to publish many collections of poetry, including Sea Garden (1916) and Red Roses for Bronze (1929).

It's the birthday of Lutheran minister and publisher Isaac Kauffman Funk, born in Clifton, Ohio (1839). After serving as a minister, he founded a publishing house and began to publish anti-alcohol pamphlets and religious journals. In 1877, he partnered with a former classmate named Adam Willis Wagnalls, and they published many books together, including Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first English dictionary that gave definitions of words with the most current definition first and the oldest definition last, rather than the other way around. At the time, dictionaries were thought of as historical records of the language. Funk & Wagnall made dictionaries practical.

It's the birthday of Czech poet and novelist Franz Werfel, born in Prague (1890). He was one of the most important members of the German Expressionists, who wrote about inward emotions instead of outward reality. In 1934 he came out with his most famous novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It was the first novel about the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, and it was published around the world. Werfel was living in France when the Nazis came to power. He had to go underground and burn all the manuscripts he had been working on because they were too dangerous to carry. He was hiding out for several weeks in Lourdes, France, where he heard the story of St. Bernadette, the 14-year-old girl who had seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Werfel vowed that if he escaped the Nazis, he would write his next novel about the girl. When he reached the United States he wrote The Song of Bernadette (1941), and it became a bestseller.

It's the birthday of editor and essayist Cyril Connolly, born in Whitley, England (1903). He was one of the most important English literary critics and edited the literary journal Horizon from 1940 to 1950, publishing authors like W.H. Auden and George Orwell. Connolly said that he drifted into being a literary critic through unemployability. Even though he became one of the best book reviewers in England, he always hated it. He said, "I review novels to make money, because it is easier for a sluggard to write an article a fortnight than a book a year." He published one novel, The Rock Pool (1936), but he thought it was so bad that he decided never to write fiction again. Instead, he wrote two great books about the misery of not being able to write great books, The Enemies of Promise (1938) and The Unquiet Grave (1944).

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