Sep. 12, 2005

The Best of It

by Kay Ryan

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Poem: "The Best of It" by Kay Ryan, from The Niagara River. © Grove Press, New York. Reprinted with permission.

The Best of It

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn't matter that
our acre's down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we'd rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1940 in the southwest of France that four teenage boys went down into a hole in the ground where some trees had been uprooted by a storm. They were looking for treasure, and they found a cavern that was 65-feet wide, 15-feet tall. They held up their lanterns, and they saw that the walls of the cave were covered with paintings of animals. They had discovered the Lascaux cave paintings, agreed to be the greatest works of prehistoric art ever found.

They're about 17,000 years old. There are more than 200 paintings in the cave, almost all of them animals: bulls, deer, oxen, herds of horses, stags, and cats, painted in various shades of yellow, red, brown, and black. They are not stick figures, but rather realistic drawings, showing the creatures turning their heads and walking through water and falling off cliffs.

Anthropologists believe the cave was used as some kind of church, but nobody really knows for sure. The paintings were not signed by the artists, but they did leave their own handprints, tracing around their own fingers.

In 1609 on this date, the explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river which eventually came to be called the Hudson River. He was on an expedition for the Dutch East India Company, trying to find a passage to Asia—the Northwest Passage. This was back when Europeans believed that North America was a rather small land mass, and if they could just find a way through it, they could get to the Asian markets.

Henry Hudson sailed up the river, anchoring his ship at what is now West 42nd Street and the Hudson. He went up as far as the site of modern day Albany, turned around, and went back to Amsterdam.

It's the birthday of Alfred Knopf, born in New York City (1892), who founded the publishing house Knopf. He had been a clerk for Doubleday, and then launched his own business. He married his assistant, Blanche Wolf, who became his partner. They had a genius for discovering authors of great potential. They published D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forrester, Albert Camus, Sigmund Freud, Kafka, Willa Cather, John Hersey, John Updike. Their all-time best selling book at Knopf was Kahlil Gibran's, The Prophet.

It's the birthday of Knopf's good friend, Henry Lewis (H.L.) Mencken, born in Baltimore (1880). He's known for the sharp satire he wrote for many years at the American Mercury, satire of the middle class and prohibition and prudes. He's also known for his scholarly book The American Language, which came out in 1919.

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, born in Lviv, Poland (1921)—a Jew who went underground when the Nazis invaded Poland. He started to write fiction after the war. He's best known for his novel Solaris about a scientist who travels to a space station and meets the ghost of his wife.

Stanislaw Lem said, "Faith is, at one and the same time, absolutely necessary and altogether impossible."

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