Mar. 5, 2004

At the Airport

by Howard Nemerov

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Poem: "At the Airport," by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (University of Chicago Press).

At the Airport

Through the gate, where nowhere and night begin,
A hundred suddenly appear and lose
Themselves in the hot and crowded waiting room.
A hundred other herd up toward the gate,
Patiently waiting that the way be opened
To nowhere and night, while a voice recites
The intermittent litany of numbers
And the holy names of distant destinations.

None going out can be certain of getting there.
None getting there can be certain of being loved
Enough. But they are sealed in the silver tube
And lifted up to be fed and cosseted,
While their upholstered cell of warmth and light
Shatters the darkness, neither here nor there.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1933 that the Nazi Party won the majority of the seats in the German parliament, known as the Reichstag, effectively taking control of the country. It was the last free election in Germany the end of World War II. Adolf Hitler had secured the chancellorship after the November 1932 elections, but he still didn't have a majority in the Reichstag, so he set March 5, 1933 as the date for new elections. Six days before the election, the Reichstag building caught fire, and the Nazis used the fire as a symbol of the chaos that they would help correct, though some historians believe that the Nazis set the fire themselves. After the election, Hitler passed a law that gave him absolute power over the country.

Just five days after the election, Victor Klemperer, a Jewish professor of romantic languages living in Germany, wrote in his diary: "What, up to election Sunday on March 5, I called terror, was a mild prelude. . . . It's astounding how easily everything collapses. . . . Since [the election,] day after day commissioners appointed, provincial governments trampled underfoot, flags raised, buildings taken over, people shot, newspapers banned, etc., etc. . . . A complete revolution and party dictatorship. And all opposing forces as if vanished from the earth. . . . No one dares say anything anymore, everyone is afraid.

On this day in 1953, one of the most ruthless dictators of the twentieth century, Josef Stalin, died in Moscow. The leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 until 1953, Stalin was responsible for the death and imprisonment of millions of his citizens during his many political purges. Near the end of his life, his behavior grew more and more bizarre. He held nightly banquets, requiring that his guests drink excessively, because he believed that drunk men didn't tell lies. After the banquets were over he would go to his garden with pruning sheers and chop off the heads of flowers, which his guards would pick up in the morning. He looked over lists of his government officials and put question marks next to the names of those he planned to execute. He began to cook up a conspiracy theory about a terrorist group of Jewish doctors who were planning to poison members of the government, and he put his own doctor on the list of conspirators. He filled the jails with men to be put on trial.

Then, on March 1, he was found unconscious on the floor of his room. According to Nikita Khrushchev, his guards were too terrified to do anything when they found him, because it had been so long since they'd acted without his orders. They left him lying on his floor for thirteen hours. When the doctors finally arrived, they were trembling with fear at the thought of doing something wrong. The doctor who removed his false teeth was shaking so much he dropped the teeth on the ground. They eventually determined that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. He died four days later.

It's the birthday of novelist Frank Norris, born in Chicago, Illinois (1870). His father was a wealthy self-made jewelry store owner, and Norris grew up in a luxurious household where his mother read him poetry by Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He traveled to Paris when he was seventeen to study drawing, even though he didn't really have any artistic talent. He quickly gave up visual art and became obsessed with Arthurian legend, writing long narrative poems about medieval knights. Under pressure from his father, he enrolled at the University of California so that he could eventually take over the family jewelry business. He felt he was above studying, and spent most of his time at parties with debutants. After his parents divorced, he dropped out of school and moved to the East Coast, where he enrolled at Harvard as a special student.

Norris had been writing a series of gothic short stories, imitating Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but a teacher at Harvard persuaded him to read novels by the French writer Émile Zola. Norris became a disciple of Zola, and began to write fiction in the school of naturalism, which portrayed human beings as irrational animals, driven by instincts. His first important novel was McTeague (1899), about a dentist who loses his job, murders his wife for money, and runs away to Death Valley in California. He spent years trying to get his novel published, struggling to support himself as a journalist. Most editors were disturbed by the novel's realistic descriptions of violence and squalor, but when it finally came out in 1899, it had a big influence on other gritty, realistic writers like Jack London and Theodore Dreiser.

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