Nov. 26, 2003

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Poem: "Clarity," by Michael Van Walleghen from Last Neanderthal (Pitt).


We rented our vacation cottage
every summer of my childhood
from the same glum farmer-

a giant, cadaverous Chippewa
with ten children, who never
seemed to look at us at all.

We paid the rent, picked up
the oars for our rowboat
then drove uncertainly off

through his dolorous chickens
to whatever slapdash hovel
matched the number on our oars.

No running water, no electricity
and no gas either that I remember.
A wood stove maybe, an outhouse

but inevitably a place so small
and flimsy, so chipped or bent
in each detail, it seemed to us

just charming, doll-like really-
as if it might have been a diorama
in some museum of natural history.

Except that starting now of course
we'd have to live there. Hornets,
bats, the snake in the cupboard…

Take it easy, mother said. Relax.
She was born and raised up here
when northern Michigan was still

a dream-time, howling wilderness
of cold starvation and diphtheria.
She'd chop that snake to pieces.

And then she'd tuck me into a bed
exactly like the one she slept in
as a child. Every night, the same

huge shadows on the walls, the same
crickets, owls, and scrambling mice…
until once I even dreamt till dawn

that I could hear her baby sister
coughing. They gave her turpentine
I think, with lots of sugar in it

but she died anyway. That's why
at first light, there was so much
fog on the black water. No one

was up yet. Under our green boat
pulled halfway up on the beach
where the giant boatman left it

I found a brilliant leopard frog
beside a tiny, coal-black bullhead.
How still, how exquisite they look

even now, after all these years…
having achieved, in the mind's eye
the perfect clarity of last things.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the cartoonist Charles Schulz, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1922). His only formal art training consisted of a correspondence course. He created the Peanuts cartoon strip, and over fifty years, only two things about the cartoon strip changed: Snoopy began to walk upright, and his thoughts appeared above his head in little balloons. Schulz once said to a friend of his, "You control all these characters and the lives they live. You decide when they get up in the morning, when they're going to fight with their friends, when they're going to lose the game. Isn't it amazing how you have no control over your real life?"

It's the birthday of the playwright Eugene Ionesco, born in Romania (1909). His first play was The Bald Soprano (1950). He wrote it when he was working as a proofreader, and he had just signed up for English lessons. He bought a phrase book full of empty-sounding sentences that had no relation to the real world, and he tried to make the lines in the play sound like phrases in the book.

On this day in 1864, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson sent Alice Liddell a handwritten manuscript called Alice's Adventures Underground as an early Christmas present. He published Alice in Wonderland the following year, and Queen Victoria liked it so much that she dispatched a letter to him saying she would be "pleased to accept any other works by the same pen." She soon received a copy of a book called Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry.

It's the birthday of Willis Haviland Carrier, born in Angola, New York (1876). He figured out how to cool machines operating at high temperatures, built cooling plants for cotton mills and macaroni factories, and then started a company to build air conditioners for private residences.

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