Jun. 12, 2004

Atwater Kent

by William Stafford

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Poem: "Atwater Kent," by William Stafford, from The Way it Is. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.

Atwater Kent

Late nights the world flooded our dark house
in a dim throbbing from a glowing little box, velvety
sound hovering from horns, or Cab Calloway
far in a night club stretched all the way to Kansas.

Maybe rewarded with popcorn or fudge, maybe
just exhausted by the day, we sprawled on the living room
rug and were carried above our house, out
over town, and spread thin by a violin.

Once from Chicago Enio Belognini
civilized with his cello a whole
hemisphere, and we were transformed into Italians
or other great people, listening in palaces.

Rich in our darkness, we lay inheriting
rivers of swirling millions, and the promise of never
a war again. It all came from the sky,
Heaven: London, Rome, Copenhagen.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Djuna Barnes, born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York (1892). She started out as a reporter for a variety of different magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, and she often contributed illustrations for her own articles. She was part of the bohemian scene in Greenwich Village, and published a collection of poems and drawings in 1915 called The Book of Repulsive Women.

She went off to Paris in 1920 and became friends with writers there, including T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. After reading Joyce's novel Ulysses in 1922, she said, "I shall never write another line. Who has the nerve to after that?" But almost 15 years later, she published Nightwood (1936), an experimental novel about a woman named Nora Flood, her love affairs and her spiritual advisor, a transvestite named Dr. O'Conner.

The book was rejected by all the American publishers she submitted it to, but T.S. Eliot loved it, so he published it himself and wrote an introduction. It had a great influence on many later experimental writers of the 1950s and '60s, and it's become a cult favorite.

It's the birthday of Anne Frank, born in Frankfurt, Germany (1929). She received a diary as a birthday present on her thirteenth birthday in 1942, and she immediately began writing in it. At that time, she was living with her family in Amsterdam, where they had moved to get away from the Nazis—but the Nazis had followed them. Since 1940, Anne had been living under Nazi occupation, but she was still living a fairly ordinary life. Her earliest journal entries are about her grades and her classmates and the boys that she knew.

In one early entry she wrote that since she did not have any close friends, she would treat her diary as though it were a close friend, and she began addressing it by the imaginary name of "Kitty." She wrote, "I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me." Less than one month after writing those words, the Nazis began deporting Jews to concentration camps, and Anne and her family went into hiding in an attic above a store, where they lived for the next two years.

Frank wrote in her diary regularly while she was in hiding, but she didn't just write about the Nazi persecution or the experience of living in secret; she also wrote about the ordinary details of her adolescent life. She wrote about how much she hated potatoes and how her older sister was clearly her parents' favorite. She described the jokes people made, and her brief romance with Peter, the son of the other family living in the attic.

More than anything, she wrote about her struggle to be an individual despite her lack of privacy. She wrote, "Everyone thinks I'm showing off when I talk, ridiculous when I'm silent, insolent when I answer, cunning when I have a good idea, lazy when I'm tired, selfish when I eat one bit more than I should, stupid, cowardly, calculating .... I really am trying to be helpful, friendly, and good, and to do everything I can so that the rain of rebukes dies down to a light summer drizzle."

In 1944, she heard on the radio that people should hang onto their war letters and diaries because they would be historical documents someday. After that she started thinking about trying to publish her diary, but she also thought about turning it into a novel.

On August 4, 1944, the annex was raided by Nazi police, and Anne and her family were among the last Jews shipped out of the Netherlands to concentration camps. Anne died of typhus in Belsen-Belsen six weeks before the camp was liberated by the Allies.

Her father was the only member of family who survived. He traveled back to Amsterdam to find that his secretary had saved Anne's diary. He took several weeks to read it, because he could only bear to read a little bit at a time without breaking down. He made copies for family members, and it was a Dutch university professor who read the diary and urged Otto Frank to publish it.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl first came out in 1947, and it was an immediate bestseller. It was translated into more than 50 languages. The entire first printing of the English translation sold out the day after it was reviewed in the New York Times. It was made into a play and then a movie, and it became the standard book used in schools for introducing children to the idea of the Holocaust. It has now sold more than 25 million copies.

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