Jun. 27, 2005

A Caterpillar on the Desk

by Robert Bly

MONDAY, 27 JUNE, 2005
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Poems: "A Caterpillar on the Desk" by Robert Bly from The Morning Glory. © Harper & Row.

A Caterpillar on the Desk

          Lifting my coffee cup, I notice a caterpillar crawling over my sheet of ten-cent airmail stamps. The head is black as a Chinese box. Nine soft accordions follow it around, with a waving motion, like a flabby mountain. Skinny brushes used to clean pop bottles rise from some of its shoulders. As I pick up the sheet of stamps, the caterpillar advances around and around the edge, and I see his feet: three pairs under the head, four spongelike pairs under the middle body, and two final pairs at the tip, pink as a puppy's hind legs. As he walks, he rears, six pairs of legs off the stamp, waving around the air! One of the sponge pairs, and the last two tail pairs, the reserve feet, hold on anxiously. It is the first of September. The leaf shadows are less ferocious on the notebook cover. A man accepts his failures more easily-or perhaps summer's insanity is gone? A man notices ordinary earth, scorned in July, with affection, as he settles down to his daily work, to use stamps.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1829, the Englishman James Smithson died. Even though he'd never been to America, he left behind a will that provided the money to found the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

It was on this day in 1928, Sylvia Beach invited James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald to dinner at her apartment over her Paris Bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Fitzgerald became drunk. He said he was such a fan of Joyce's that he would throw himself out the window to prove it.

Neither writer was having much success. Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby, and it had not been selling well. Joyce's Ulysses wouldn't be published outside of Paris for another five years. Both men died 13 years later, less than a month apart, with no money and very few readers.

It's the birthday of poet Frank O'Hara, born in Baltimore (1926). He wanted to be a pianist, but went to Harvard, where he met the poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch who persuaded him to write poems.

He moved to New York City in 1951 and got a job selling postcards at the Museum of Modern Art. He worked his way up to becoming one of the curators. He fell in love with the abstract art of the '50s. He believed that poems should be improvisational, like action paintings with random references. He said, "You just go on your nerve." At the height of his career, he wrote constantly. He stuffed his poems into his desk drawers, often forgetting about them.

It's the birthday of the poet Peter Davison, born in New York City (1928). He said, "Poetry was invented as a mnemonic device to enable people to remember their prayers ... so that we could remember what we had thought or what we had compiled ... [to connect] sense to mind to memory to rhythm to emotion."

It's the birthday of the poet Lucille Clifton, born in Depew, New York (1936).

It's the birthday of the novelist Alice McDermott, born in Brooklyn (1953). She has written several novels about Irish Catholic families in the suburbs around New York, including That Night, Child of My Heart and Charming Billy.

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