Jul. 14, 2004

The Dog Sitters

by Edward Field

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Poem: "The Dog Sitters," by Edward Field, from Counting Myself Lucky. © Black Sparrow Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Dog Sitters

for Stanley and Jane

Old friends, we tried so hard
to take care of your dogs.
We petted them, talked to them, even slept with them,
and followed all your instructions
about feeding and care—
but they were inconsolable.
The longer you were gone
the more they pined for you.
We were poor substitutes,
almost worse than nothing.

Until you returned, days of worry
as each fell ill with fever, diarrhoea and despair,
moving about all night restlessly on the bed we shared.
We wakened at dawn to walk them,
but there was a mess already on the rug.
We called the vet, coaxed them to eat,
tried to distract them
from the terrible sadness in their eyes
every time they lay down with their chins in their paws
in utter hopelessness, and the puppy
got manic, biting our hands.

Ten days in the house by the bay
trying to keep them alive, it was a nightmare,
for they were afraid to go anywhere with us, for fear
you would never come back,
that they must be there waiting when you did,
until you did ... if you did... .

Then, the minute you got home
they turned away from us to you
and barely looked at us again, even when we left—
for you had filled the terrible empty
space that only you could fill,
and our desperate attempts
were dismissed without a thought.

We tried to tell each other it was a victory
keeping them alive, but the truth is
that when someone belongs so utterly to someone else,
stay out of it—that kind of love is a steamroller
and if you get in the way, even to help,
you can only get flattened.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1789, Parisians stormed the Bastille Prison, marking the start of the French Revolution. The word "bastille" means "fortress." The Bastille had been built by Charles V around 1370 to guard the entrance into Paris. The prison was a rectangular building with eight round towers joined by plain walls about a hundred feet high. The structure was able to house forty-two prisoners. Entry was restricted to a single gateway protected by two bridges over the surrounding moat.

By 1789 the people of Paris had grown to hate the Bastille. It was expensive to run and had become a symbol of the arbitrary power of the regime. On this day, July 14th, 1789, an angry mob destroyed the prison with guns, cannons, fire and their bare hands. The Governor of the Bastille attempted to surrender, but the mob wouldn't accept it, and he was stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet as the mob poured through the gates. No guards were left alive, and the prisoners were released and carried through the streets of Paris along with the heads of those killed. Storm clouds had been gathering all day and rain fell in torrents that evening while Paris celebrated its victory. It was the beginning of the French Revolution.

Today is Bastille Day, France's most important national holiday, celebrated with a military parade on the Champs-Elysees and fireworks at the Trocadero. Every village in France holds its own celebration with champagne, street activities and dancing.

It was on this day in 1881 that Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, was shot dead at the age of twenty-one by Pat Garrett, the sheriff of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Billy had escaped from the county jail and killed the two guards on duty. He headed for the home of his friend, Pete Maxwell, but Garrett was waiting inside the door and shot him once above the heart.

It's the birthday of literary critic and educator Northrop Frye, born in Sherbrooke, Quebec (1912). He's known for tracking myths and symbols in literature to their Biblical roots. He's the author of the book Anatomy of Criticism (1957), which became a definitive text for literary critics.

It's the birthday of writer and activist Natalia Ginzburg, born in Palermo, Italy (1916). Her novels include All Our Yesterdays (1951), Little Virtues (1962) and City and the House (1984).

It's the birthday of playwright and novelist Irving Stone, born in San Francisco, California (1903). As a young man, he visited Paris and stumbled upon an exhibition of the work of Vincent van Gogh. It inspired him to write Lust for Life (1934), a novel about the life of Van Gogh. He went on to write a number of novels about historical figures, including Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin. His most famous novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), tells the life story of the painter Michelangelo.

It's the birthday of writer and director (Ernst) Ingmar Bergman, born in Uppsala, Sweden (1918). Bergman's childhood hobbies were puppetry and motion-picture projection. He received a kerosene-lamp projector when he was ten or eleven and kept the rickety machine in the nursery closet. At family gatherings his mother organized magic lantern and puppet shows. The magic lantern would later appear as a motif in many of his films, and his autobiography, published in English in 1988, is titled The Magic Lantern.

It's the hundredth birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, born in Leoncin, Poland (1904). He wrote novels and stories about the imps and goblins of Jewish folklore, about childhood in pre-holocaust Warsaw, and about American immigrants. He won the Newbery Honor for his first children's book, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (1966), and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

In his speech at the Nobel Prize banquet in Sweden in 1978, Singer said there were five hundred reasons he writes for children. He said: "Children read books, not reviews. They don't give a hoot about the critics... . They ... don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation... . They ... still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff... . They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions."

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