Feb. 26, 2005

Beauty or Flight

by Denver Butson

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Poem: "Beauty or Flight" by Denver Butson, from Triptych. © The Commoner Press, New York, 1999. Reprinted with permission.

Beauty or Flight

The man who jumped from the highway bridge one afternoon
who drove his car along in rush hour traffic
then carefully pulled it over, fussed with something briefly on the dash,
so casually that another driver passing
thought he was looking for a map, or a cassette tape,
that had slid during the last turn before the bridge-that's all—
and then stepped out of the car, standing, stretching,
and closing the door routinely, a man in need of a break
on a long drive, a man untroubled by his next appointment,
a man who felt himself growing tired and thought
he needed some air, looked up the highway once
and then down at the almost frozen rows of traffic
under the haze that lingered above the bridge
and then broke simply and suddenly into a run, a dead run,
one motorist called it, crossing in front of his car
and not even stopping at the railing between the bridge
and the empty space beside the bridge, entering that space
and opening his mouth in what one driver called a scream,
though she heard no sound above the drone of traffic, and
other drivers saw as a gasp for breath, not unlike a child takes
when diving into a backyard pool, and he executed then
a nearly perfect, if a little rushed, swan dive out across the space
next to the bridge and into the water ninety-five feet below.

One fisherman in a boat a little upstream
saw the man who jumped from the highway bridge,
the moment he left the bridge and entered his dive, and the fisherman
swore he saw not a man but a large bird, a falcon or an eagle,
shot mid-flight by an angry driver, a large bird
who was trying to regain some sense of beauty, some sense of flight,
in its final dying seconds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the man we call Buffalo Bill, born William Frederick Cody in LeClair, Iowa (1846).

Cody's father died when the boy was only 13, and Cody responded by leaving the family home in Kansas to seek his fortune out west. He first worked for supply trains and a freighting company, and in 1859 he worked in the Colorado gold fields. The next year, Cody rode for the Pony Express. Then, Buffalo Bill began the work for which he became famous: scouting for the Army, and hunting buffalos for railroad construction camps across the Great Plains.

The novelist Ned Buntline persuaded Cody to appear on stage on December 17, 1872, as the character Buffalo Bill, and Cody was connected with show business almost completely from that time forward. The next year, Cody formed the Buffalo Bill Combination, which included his friend Wild Bill Hickok. He organized Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1883, and toured all over America and Europe for many years. The state of Wyoming gave Cody a stock ranch, and it was here that the future city of Cody was first conceived.

Buffalo Bill's adventures and exploits were written about in dime store novels by Prentice Ingraham—and many of the adventures written there were true, or based in truth.

It's the birthday of Victor Hugo, the French poet, novelist and dramatist, born in Besancon, France (1802). He is best known for his epic novels, like Les Misérables (1862) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), but he published dozens of works in his lifetime.

Hugo's father was an army general, and the father taught his young son to admire Napoleon as a national hero. Hugo also traveled widely as a boy, living in Spain and Italy before his parents separated, when Hugo moved to Paris with his mother. It was in Paris that the young Hugo began to make a name for himself, as a writer of promise. He published his first play at age 14, and earned praise from the prestigious Académie Française a year later. Hugo published his early novels, Han d'Islande and Bug-Jargal, in his early twenties. Hugo had been translating the poetry of Virgil since adolescence, and in 1822 he published his first translations. Hugo earned a large financial reward from Louis XVII for these translations, and he married the daughter of the minister of defense.

Hugo earned widespread fame for his play Hernani (1830) and for the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), which tells the now-famous story of a gypsy girl named Esmeralda and the deformed bell ringer who loves her, named Quasimodo. Much later, Hugo wrote the epic Les Misérables, about the life of Jean Valjean, who is imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

Hugo became increasingly involved in French politics later in life, particularly after the death of his daughter and her husband, which caused him much sadness and kept him from publishing a book for 10 years. In particular, Hugo was an advocate for social justice. In 1848, after a revolution helped form the Second Republic, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and the Legislative Assembly. Just a few years later, Hugo fled France after a coup d'etat by Napoleon III put his life in danger. Hugo first went to Brussels, then he moved on to Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel. He would be away from France for 20 years. It was during this time that Hugo wrote Les Misérables.

Hugo returned to France when the Third Republic came into power, but he left again during the time of the Paris Commune, which ruled Paris for a brief time in 1871. Hugo again took up residence in Brussels, but he was expelled for sheltering defeated revolutionaries. Hugo moved on to Luxembourg, and when the Paris Commune finally collapsed, he returned to Paris and was elected a senator.

Like so many French writers before and since, Hugo's death was a national event. He was given a national funeral attended by two million people.

Nobody is certain what day Christopher Marlowe was born, but he was christened on this day, in Canterbury, England (1564). Marlowe is often considered the greatest dramatist before Shakespeare, even though the two were born in the same year. Probably this is because of Marlowe's early death at age 29.

Marlowe attended Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on a scholarship usually given to students studying for the ministry. He held the scholarship for the full six years he was allowed, but he began to write plays rather than take holy orders. Marlowe encountered difficulty as he completed his master's degree in 1587. The university nearly denied him the degree, because they suspected that Marlowe intended to go to Reims, the center of Catholic dissidence and movements against Queen Elizabeth. He was finally granted the degree, because the Privy Council intervened on the queen's behalf, and they said Marlowe had proven his loyalty by acting as some kind of government agent.

Marlowe wrote his play Tamburlaine before leaving Cambridge, and in 1587 it was produced on the stage in London. A sequel soon followed. Marlowe also wrote Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta, Edward II and The Massacre at Paris, all well known today. Except for the Tamburlaine plays, Marlowe's other works were published and produced only after he died.

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