Aug. 13, 2004

Touch Me

by Stanley Kunitz

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Poem: "Touch Me" by Stanley Kunitz, from Staying Alone, Real Poems for Unreal Times © Miramax Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
               and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1961 that East Germany sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. Germany had been divided since the end of World War II: East Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union and West Germany was controlled by a democratic Government. The city of Berlin lay inside East Germany, but West Germany controlled half the city. If people living in Communist countries in Eastern Europe could get to West Berlin, they could then escape to West Germany. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million people left East Germany through West Berlin. The East Germany government built the Berlin wall around West Berlin to stop the flight of skilled labor, which threatened its economy.

The first part of the wall was built at 2 a.m. on this day in 1961, made of cinder blocks and barbed wire. It was later replaced with a fifteen-foot concrete wall with watchtowers, guns, electric wire, and mines. It came to symbolize the Cold War's division of Eastern Europe from Western Europe. Between 1961 and 1989, almost two hundred people were killed trying to cross the wall.

When the wall finally came down in November of 1989, people rushed into West Berlin. Capitalism took over almost immediately, when entrepreneurs began collecting pieces of the wall and shipping them to the United States to be sold as souvenirs. More than 20 tons of the wall were shipped to America, just in time for the Christmas shopping season, to be sold, along with an "informative booklet and a declaration of authenticity," for $10 to $15 in gift shops and department stores.

It was on this day in 1940 that Germany began to bomb England during World War II, beginning the Battle of Britain. France had just been conquered, and Germany's plan was to destroy Great Britain's Royal Air Force before it began a land invasion of the country.

The British had the most advanced radar systems in the world, which helped them shoot down many of the German bombers, but by the middle of August they had lost a quarter of their planes. The British pilots were flying so many missions a day that as soon as they landed they fell asleep in their cockpits. Churchill said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Everything changed on August 24th, when a German bomber accidentally bombed London. Britain responded by bombing Berlin. Hitler was so angry that he ordered his air force to bomb London exclusively, turning his attention away from the Royal Air Force. Historians say that if Hitler had focused on destroying the Royal Air Force, he probably would have won the battle. Instead, the British weathered the bombing raids until the United States could join the war, and the Germans were eventually defeated.

Today is believed to be the birthday of the first man ever to print a book in English, William Caxton, born in Kent, England (1422). He was a wealthy trader and merchant, and also a part time linguist and translator. He was living in Cologne, Germany, when he translated a book about the history of Troy. The printing press had been invented about twenty-five years earlier, but it had only recently started to spread beyond Germany. Caxton realized that the new technology of printing would make the job of distributing his books a lot easier. So instead of copying the book by hand, he printed the book he had translated about Troy in 1475. He eventually went back to England, where he established the first English printing press. He printed all the available English literature, including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1478). For a long time, people in England called printed books "Caxtons."

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