Jul. 25, 2004

SUNDAY, 25 JULY, 2004
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Poem: "Look," by Patrick Phillips, from Chattahoochee. © University of Arkansas Press. Reprinted with permission.


I'd like to ask my mother
why I'm here, straddling
one thigh of her bell-bottom jeans,
listening to her whisper look
look sweetie
in my ear.

But I can't stop staring
at our fat cat Walina,
ancestor of every cat
that ever roamed that house,

as she blinks back at me,
licks between her claws,
then turns again to eating
the clear, vein-laced skin
stretched over the faces
of her babies squirming
in a pulled-out dresser drawer.

I'd like to ask—but this is back
before anything means anything, when it all just is,
and even the squinting kittens
are like a game my mother made up
to pass the drizzly afternoon.

Back in the cold, dark evening
of childhood, where I'm always
alone: watching Walina
close her mouth around the runt—
the sleepy one, the one too weak
to butt its head against her,
that meows and meows
though no sound comes out,
when she drops it outside the drawer.

This is in the oldest room
of the house behind my eyelids,
where the world began:
where a light bulb pops and flickers
over everything, and no one
ever comes to stop the kitten
from dragging its sack of blood
all over the white linoleum.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer, born in New York City (1902). After his mother's death when he was seven years old, he mysteriously went blind, so he never attended school. When he finally got his eyesight back eight years later, he was so eager to catch up on his education that he read every book he could get his hands on.

He moved to California and worked as a dishwasher, a factory worker, a farm hand, a lumberjack, a gold prospector, and finally a longshoreman. At each job, he would work for a while to save money and then take time off to do nothing but read. He had six library cards in six different towns, so as he moved around the state he could always have access to books. His favorite book was the Essays of Montaigne, which he carried everywhere in a rucksack and quoted from all the time to the miners and fruit pickers he met.

He started writing down his thoughts in railroad yards, in the fields, and during lunch hours. The first book he submitted for publication was a handwritten manuscript, and it was published in 1951 as The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. He argued that people who join mass movements don't really care where the movement is going.

He went on to publish many other books of philosophy, and he wrote a syndicated newspaper column while keeping his job as a longshoreman. The University of California at Berkley hired him as a "conversationalist at large."

Hoffer said, "When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other."

It's the birthday of the painter Maxfield Parrish, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1870). During the early twentieth century, he was one of the most popular commercial artists in the United States. He's known for his paintings of dreamlike landscapes full of attractive young women.

It's the birthday of Elias Canetti, born in Russe, Bulgaria (1905). He's best known for his novel The Tower of Babel (1935). He grew up in an area of Bulgaria that was so ethnically diverse that his grandfather had to speak seventeen languages in order to succeed as a grocer. As a child Canetti spoke Ladino, an ancient Judeo-Spanish language, and he also learned Bulgarian from his family's maids.

He went to high school in Frankfurt, Germany, and it was there that he first saw a workers' street demonstration turn into a riot. He was so disturbed by the sight of a mob that it haunted him for years. Then, in 1927, he was passing by the Vienna Palace of Justice after an unpopular verdict had been announced. A crowd of people on the street suddenly erupted into a riot, and Canetti was surrounded. He later wrote, "I had become part of the crowd, I fully dissolved in it, I did not feel the slightest resistance to what the crowd was doing." He rushed forward with the others and participated in the burning down of the Palace of Justice. Canetti later said that participating in a riot was the most important experience of his life, and he spent the rest of his career as a writer researching crowds and their effect throughout the history of civilization.

Most of his plays and fiction are about mobs and riots, and he believed that the twentieth century was defined by the mob mentality. He fled the Nazis and lived in England during World War II, and finally published his masterpiece, Crowds and Power, in 1960. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.

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