Nov. 19, 2003


by Sharon Olds

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Poem: "Topography," by Sharon Olds, from The Gold Cell (Alfred A. Knopf).


After we flew across the country we
got in bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York, your
Fire Island against my Sonoma, my
New Orleans deep in your Texas, your Idaho
bright on my Great Lakes, my Kansas
burning against your Kansas your Kansas
burning against my Kansas, your Eastern
Standard Time pressing into my
Pacific Time, my Mountain Time
beating against your Central Time, your
sun rising swiftly from the right my
sun rising swiftly from the left your
moon rising slowly from the left my
moon rising slowly from the right until
all four bodies of the sky
burn above us, sealing us together,
all our cities twin cities,
all our states united, one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After a two-hour speech by orator Edward Everett, President Lincoln gave his ten-sentence address, which lasted less than two minutes. Many people were not even aware that he had spoken.

It's the birthday of poet Sharon Olds, born in San Francisco, California (1942). Olds was, in her own words, raised as a "hellfire Calvinist" in Berkeley, California. She graduated from Stanford and then moved east to attend graduate school. After she got her Ph.D. she stood on the steps of the library at Columbia University and vowed to become a poet, even if her poetry turned out to be bad. Her first collection, Satan Says, was published in 1980 when she was 37 years old. More than five books later, she has become one of America's most highly regarded poets. Her readings attract overflow audiences, and her volume The Dead and the Living won the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award. Her more recent works include The Wellspring (1992), Blood, Tin, Straw (1999), and The Unswept Room (2002).

It's the birthday of trombonist and bandleader Thomas Francis "Tommy" Dorsey, born in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania (1905). He was known as "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing." His father was a miner and self-taught musician who led a band in his spare time. He was determined that Tommy and his older brother Jimmy would not follow him into the mines, and began giving them lessons on the cornet as soon as they could blow a horn. Both boys were soon playing in their father's band. By the time Tommy was sixteen, the brothers had a band of their own, Dorsey's Wild Canaries. They played with Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and Paul Whiteman's orchestra. At the urging of Glenn Miller, the Dorseys formed an eleven-piece orchestra for which Miller wrote most of the arrangements.

Temperamentally, the brothers were exact opposites. Their mother said, "Tommy was always a great one for pushing and Jimmy for taking his own sweet time." One practice session in May 1935, Tommy set the tempo for "I'll Never Say 'Never Again' Again." "Isn't that a little too fast?" asked Jimmy. "Let's do it right or not do it at all." "All right!" said Tommy. "We won't do it at all." He blasted a note on his trombone and walked off the bandstand, and the band broke up.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist (John Orley) Allen Tate, born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899). During his time at Vanderbilt, Tate was the only undergraduate to be allowed membership in the Fugitives, an informal group of Southern intellectuals that included poet Robert Penn Warren. The Fugitives met once a week to discuss poetry--their own and others'--and to mount a defense against the notion that the South did not possess a significant literature of its own. The Fugitives were practitioners and defenders of formalism in poetry, and were preoccupied with defending the traditional values of the agrarian South against the effects of urban industrialization. Tate is best known for his poem "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1926).

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