Oct. 21, 2005

Other Nations

by Kate Barnes

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Poem: "Other Nations" by Kate Barnes from Kneeling Orion. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Other Nations
               For Maxine Kumin

I used to think women who talked baby talk
to their animals were the rock bottom. Now I'm not
so sure. Now I open my moth
and hear, coming out of it, :Is you
a good, good dog?" – words that are falling
in their light, descending order to two pricked ears,
a hairy face, a glowing eye, an unbroken
concentration on the excellent, bone-shaped dog biscuit
I'm holding up, increasing our pleasure
with some slight, prolonging chitchat.
                              My neighbor Zoë,
at twelve, cries to her cat, "Oh, dearest, darlingest
Wooshiekins!" as she presses extravagant kisses
on the round head of a pale, torpid marmalade
who doesn't seem to mind (but her silent father
gets up and leaves the room).
                         "They are other nations,"
my own father wrote, "caught with ourselves
in the net of life and time." Of course, he meant
the wild ones, but our household allies, too,
link us to a greater world. We wish
we could speak their languages; and, meanwhile,
they learn ours.
          When the rein snaps
while I'm driving home in the buggy, with Blackberry
trotting hard, grabbing the bit, through the rush
of a blustery March day, I don't start hauling
on the other rein and risk tipping us over
or starting a runaway; I call to him loudly,
"wa-alk…wa-alk…" – and after he does that
he hears me say, "Whoa!" – and he does that.

                         So how can I ever
praise that huge person enough, those twelve hundred pounds
of best behavior who may just have saved
my life? I get out and tie the ends
of the parted rein as he rolls
his questioning eye, and I pat
his strong, damp neck, repeating, over and over,
without thought, a mantra of gratitude to gods
and animals. "Thank you," I say, "thank you,
thank you, kind fate, thank you, my good, good friend!"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, born in Devonshire, England (1772). His father died when he was ten. He went off to boarding school and hated it there. He went to college in Cambridge and dropped out to join the army. He thought of coming to America, to Pennsylvania to start a utopian village along the Susquehanna River with the poet Robert Southey, a place where people would cut down trees as they discussed metaphysics.

But he never came to Pennsylvania. Instead, he married and moved to a little house in the country and became a friend of the poet William Wordsworth. He and Wordsworth took long walks together, and on one walk, one winter evening, Coleridge came up with the idea for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," about a sailor who brings a curse upon his ship after he kills an albatross. It became his best-known poem.

It was on this day in 1879 the inventor Thomas Edison finally struck upon the idea for a workable electric light. People had been trying to make electric lights since the 1820s to replace kerosene and gas lamps, but they had chosen the wrong material for the filament: platinum. And Edison tried carbonized cotton thread, carbon filament which worked much better. He later improved the design with a tungsten filament that lasted longer and glowed brighter.

One of the effects of the invention of the electric light is that people sleep less than they once did. Before 1910, people slept an average of nine hours a night, and since then it's about seven and a half. Sleep researchers have shown in the laboratory that if people are deprived of electric light, they will go back to the nine hour a night schedule.

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