Oct. 6, 2003

The Invitations Overhead

by Stephen Dobyns

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Poem: "The Invitations Overhead," by Stephen Dobyns, from Common Carnage (Penguin Poets).

The Invitations Overhead

At the edge of a golf course, a man watches
geese land on a pond, the bottom of which
is spotted with white golf balls. It is October
and the geese pause in their long flight.

Honking and flapping at one another, they seem
to discuss their travels and the man thinks
how the world must look when viewed from above:
villages and cornfields, the autumn trees.

The man wonders how his own house must look
seen from the sky: the grass he has cut
a thousand times, the border of white flowers,
the house where he walks from room to room,

his children gone, his wife with her own life.
Although he knows the geese's honkings are only
crude warnings and greetings, the man also
imagines they tell the histories of the people

they travel over, their loneliness, the lives
of those who can't change their places, who
each year grow more isolated and desperate.
Is this what quickens his breathing when at night

the distant honking seems mixed with the light
of distant stars? Follow us, follow us, they call,
as if life could be made better by departure,
or if he were still young enough to think it so.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Ivy Day in the Republic of Ireland, commemorating Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish statesman who died on this day in 1891. Parnell led the Irish struggle for Home Rule from Britain, and they called him "the uncrowned king of Ireland." Today is called Ivy Day because Parnell's emblem was a sprig of green ivy, worn on the lapel. James Joyce was obsessed with Parnell, and his short story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room," was set on this day.

On this day in 1683, thirteen families from Krefeld, Germany arrived in the colony of Pennsylvania and founded Germantown, one of America's oldest European settlements. They were Mennonites, the first to arrive in America. They came on the sailing ship the Concord, looking for religious freedom after having been persecuted in Europe. They were also drawn to William Penn's offer of 5,000 acres of land. By the American Revolution there were 100,000 Germans in Pennsylvania, more than a third of the state's total population at the time.

It's the birthday of architect Le Corbusier, born Charles Edouard Jeanneret in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland (1887). He was also a painter, a sculptor, and a writer. Le Corbusier was the pen name he chose when he started writing articles for The New Spirit, a magazine he co-founded in Paris in 1920. Le Corbusier collected his articles in his first book, Toward a New Architecture (1923), and it became a big influence on other architects. His other books include The City of Tomorrow (1929), When the Cathedrals Were White (1947), and The Modular (1954). He said, "Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep."

It's the birthday of novelist and critic Caroline Gordon, born in Merry Mont, Kentucky (1895). In 1924, she married the poet Allen Tate and together they moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, where Tate's brother, Ben, had given Tate a house. They called the house Benfolly, because Tate considered Ben's gift a "folly." At Benfolly, Gordon and Tate hosted some of the best writers of their day—Ford Madox Ford, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. While Gordon was writing her first novel, Penhally (1931), Ford Madox Ford helped her to finish it by not letting her do anything each day until she had dictated at least 5000 words to him. Her books include the novel Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934), Old Red and Other Stories (1963) and How to Read a Novel (1957). In How to Read a Novel, Caroline Gordon wrote, "A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way."

It's the birthday of soprano Jenny Lind, born in Stockholm, Sweden (1820). When she performed in London in her most famous role in the 1847 opera Robert le Diable, (Robert the Devil) , newspapers reported that London "went mad about the Swedish nightingale," and that became her nickname for the rest of her career.

On this day in 1847, Charlotte Brontė came out with her novel Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell. It's a story about an orphan girl who grows up to become a governess, and it was an immediate success. In Jane Eyre, Bronte writes, "It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it."

On this day in 1930, William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying was published. Faulkner wrote the book while he was working the night shift at a power plant. He said he wrote it in six weeks, without changing a word. He said, "Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall." It's a story about the Bundren family and their journey to take the body of their mother, Addie, to be buried. In the book, Addie says, "I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time." Faulkner said that of all his books, he liked As I Lay Dying the best.

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