Jun. 4, 2004

Since feeling is first

by E. E. Cummings

FRIDAY, 4 JUNE, 2004
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Poem: "since feeling is first," by e.e. cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Weidenfeld. Reprinted with permission.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1989 that the Chinese government cracked down on students conducting pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The demonstrations by the pro-democracy student groups had begun months earlier, after the government accused them of planning a coup d'etat. They drew thousands of supporters from three dozen universities and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins. The Chinese government declared martial law, and troops approached the square with tanks in the late evening of June 3.

Ordinary workers had gathered along the nearby roads. They had been demonstrating in support of the students for weeks, and they crowded into the streets to block the advance of the tanks toward the square. Though the event would come to be called the Tianamen Square massacre, almost all the people killed were the ordinary people in the streets outside the square. Violence broke out around midnight on this day in 1989, with some people throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the troops, and the troops responding with gunfire.

Soldiers surrounded the perimeter of the square, and the students expected that they would kill everyone at the center. Around 4:00 AM, all the lights went out, and it got quiet. The students debated whether or not they should surrender. They heard the engines of the tanks start up, and finally they made the decision to evacuate. At that time, there were only a few journalists left in the square, and erroneous stories later reported that the students had all been killed. In fact, almost all the students survived.

One of the few journalists who witnessed the evacuation said, "Many [of the students] had tears rolling down their cheeks. All looked shaken; many were trembling or unsteady on their feet. But all looked proud and unbeaten. One group shouted, 'Down with the Communist Party!' [It was] the first time I had ever heard this openly said in China." The students left a message written on the wall behind them that said, "On June 4, 1989, the Chinese people shed their blood and died for democracy."

The violence continued in and around the square for the rest of the day. The famous photograph of a student staring down a tank was taken by an American Associated Press photographer named Jeff Widener. He went to the top of a hotel near the square and began to take pictures of the tanks clearing the last remnants of people from the streets. Then he saw one man walk up to a tank and stand in its path, refusing to move. He took several photographs and then the man was grabbed by bystanders and pulled out of the tank's path. Widener asked another journalist to hide the film in his underwear to smuggle out of the country. The identity of the protester in the photograph is not known with any certainty. We don't know if he's alive or dead, in prison or free, but he's been called one of the most influential revolutionaries of the twentieth century.

It was on this day in 1940 that British forces began the evacuation from Dunkirk. World War II had been going on for about eight months. British forces had gone to Belgium to help defend Belgium and France against the invading Nazi army, but they were poorly prepared for battle and completely overwhelmed. Hundreds of thousands of troops were driven back to the French coastal town of Dunkirk. If the Nazis had invaded that city with ground troops, they could have captured the whole British army.

Instead, Hitler ordered that the British troops on the beaches be attacked from the air. The British men hunkered down to weather the bombing, dug trenches for defense, and got ready for evacuation. But when the British ships showed up to carry the troops across the English Channel, they were only prepared to carry about one tenth of the more than 500,000 men who were stranded on the beach. The Nazis began bombing the British ships, and it seemed that all hope was lost.

But the British government sent out a request for all persons with sea-worthy vessels to help in the evacuation. Men in fishing boats, trawlers, lifeboats, paddle steamers and yachts crossed the channel to help the soldiers escape. More than 300,000 soldiers were saved in the evacuation of Dunkirk. When they arrived in Britain, they were given a hero’s welcome.

It was on this day in 1942 that the Battle of Midway took place over the Pacific Ocean. It was one of the first battles fought almost entirely in the air, and it's considered one of the major turning points of the Pacific half of World War II. At the time, the Japanese had a far superior naval and air fleet, and they had scored a series of victories over the Allies since bombing Pearl Harbor. They hoped to seize Midway Island because it was the last American outpost in the central Pacific. They could have use it to stage an invasion of Hawaii, which would have given them complete strategic control over the Pacific Ocean.

The Japanese sent out a total of seven aircraft carriers to bomb the island and destroy the naval base there. It was one of the largest and most heavily armed navel fleets ever assembled up to that time. They launched their first attack early in the morning on this day in 1942. The Japanese pilots dropped their bombs on the Midway airfield, and then flew back to their carriers to refuel and reload with bombs.

The U.S. knew that the Japanese would be attacking that day, because they had cracked the Japanese codes, but they didn't know where the Japanese fleet was located. While the Japanese were refueling, a squadron of American bombers had wandered off course trying to get back to Midway Island. From the air, they noticed the wake of a small Japanese ship and decided to follow it. When they descended from the clouds, they realized that they had accidentally stumbled upon the Japanese fleet, caught almost defenseless, with all their planes docked and refueling. The American bombers dove down from 12,000 feet, dropped their bombs on the Japanese aircraft carriers, and took off again.

In just five minutes, the U.S. bombers had delivered a devastating blow to the Japanese fleet. Fuel lines on the Japanese carriers caught fire, munitions exploded, and hundreds of Japanese sailors died in an instant. The battle went on for three more days, but the Japanese never fully recovered from that first attack. Because their carriers were destroyed, the Japanese planes ultimately had no place to land. They finally ran out of fuel and either crashed into the ocean or into U.S. ships.

When the battle started, the Americans had been outnumbered in fighting ships 86 to 27, but the U.S. only lost one aircraft carrier, 147 planes and 307 men. The Japanese lost all their major carriers, 332 planes and almost 3,000 men. The Japanese navy was shattered, and from that battle onward, they were on the defensive. They never won another decisive naval battle for the rest of the war.

It was one this day in 1919 that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was passed by the United States Congress. Women across America voted in their first national election in November of 1920, though there was still some resistance to the idea. Some cities instituted a rule that voters would have to state their age in order to vote, with the hope that women would be discouraged enough to stay home—but it didn't seem to work.

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