Dec. 3, 2005

The Altar

by Charles Simic

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Poem:"The Altar," by Charles Simic from Night Picnic (Harcourt).

The Altar

The plastic statue of the Virgin
On top of a bedroom dresser
With a blackened mirror
From a bad-dream grooming salon.
Two pebbles from the grave of a rock star,
A small, grinning windup monkey,
A bronze Egyptian coin
And a red movie-ticket stub.

A splotch of sunlight on the framed
Communion photograph of a boy
With the eyes of someone
Who will drown in a lake real soon.

An altar dignifying the god of chance.
What is beautiful, it cautions,
Is found accidentally and not sought after.
What is beautiful is easily lost.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Anna Freud, born in Vienna, Austria (1895), the author of books and articles about the psychology of children. She was Sigmund Freud's youngest child, and he was closer to her than to any of his other children. She was wild and joyful as a little girl; when she was four, her father wrote about her, "Anna has become downright beautiful through naughtiness." As an adult, she ran schools in Austria and England whose students were orphaned or made homeless in the Second World War; she said their guardians brought them to her because she encouraged them to speak and act boldly. She inscribed one of her books to her father, "Writing books: a defense against danger from inside and outside."

On this day in 1894 Robert Louis Stevenson died at Valima, his house on Samoa. He was working on a novel called The Weir at Hermiston, which critics said would have been his best if he'd had time to finish it.

It's the birthday of Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski in Berdyczew, Poland (1857). He wrote Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), and Nostromo (1904). He was born and raised hundreds of miles from the ocean, and didn't see the Mediterranean until he was fifteen, but he made his way to France and shipped out for Martinique before he was twenty. When he was examined for his Master's Certificate in the British Merchant Marine, the examiner was so astonished at the thought of certifying a Polish sailor that the interview never made any real progress. He sailed to India, the Congo, Malaysia, and Borneo, most of which appeared later in his sea-faring novels, and he smuggled arms, survived shipwreck, and contracted malarial gout; most of which appeared later in his novels. His first novel, Almayer's Folly, wasn't published until he was 36. At about that time, his uncle left him a large fortune, and he married, moved to a farm in Kent, and devoted himself to writing. He never went to sea again.

It's the birthday of Mary Lamb, born in London (1763), Charles Lamb's older sister. Charles served as Mary's guardian after, in a psychotic rage, Mary stabbed their mother with a table-knife. She spent the rest of her life either in his care or in and out of various institutions, but she and her brother wrote the childhood classic Tales from Shakespeare. Mary wrote the comedies and the histories, and Charles wrote the tragedies.

It's the birthday of Gilbert Stuart, born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island (1755). He painted the portrait of George Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill, and he also made portraits of every other person of any stature in the capital at that time. He kept his subjects amused with witty stories as he worked so their expressions would stay lively, but it didn't work on George Washington; he just wasn't interested.

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