Feb. 12, 2006

Martha Stewart Living

by Leon Rooke

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Poem: "Martha Stewart Living" by Leon Rooke from Hot Poppies. © The Porcupine's Quill. Reprinted with permission.

Martha Stewart Living

A man at the Dominion was looking long and hard
at chicken breasts, first at economy trays
then at smaller portions, finally hefting the smaller
and saying to the woman nudging his rear, 'Do you suppose
these are free-range chickens?' The woman shouldered
him aside. She was in a hurry, she said, and in no mood
for asinine chit-chat. 'But no,' she said, scurrying away,
'I don't suppose those are free-range. I suppose those
are dead chickens.' At which point, or actually about thirty
seconds later, the man said to me, 'Some days I am happy
I never married.'

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, born near Hodgenville, Kentucky (1809). He was raised on farms in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. He had little formal education. As a young man, he left his family to work on a cargo boat that went down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He later described himself as a "friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flat boat."

He settled in the small town of New Salem, Illinois, where he helped manage a general store and worked as a surveyor and postmaster. He joined a debate society and studied to become a lawyer which you could do at the time just by studying the books yourself.

Lincoln ran for the Illinois state legislature in 1832. He lost the 1832 election but won it two years later. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives for eight years, and in 1846 he was elected to the United States Congress.

By 1854 he had become so consumed by his work as a lawyer that he had almost given up on politics. It was then that a Democratic senator from Illinois named Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill which threatened to repeal the restrictions on slavery for some Northern states.

In the summer of 1858, Lincoln decided to run for Congress against Douglas, and challenged him to a series of debates in seven different Illinois cities. The debates attracted huge crowds, and newspapers gave full reports using a recently invented shorthand. Douglas argued that slavery should be allowed as long as that's what a majority of a state's citizens wanted and Lincoln argued for the abolition of slavery on moral grounds.

Lincoln lost the election, but the debates with Douglas gave him the exposure and confidence to run for president two years later and this time he beat out Douglas. He didn't start out as a popular president. People made fun of his physical appearance; he was six feet, four inches tall, skinny, slightly stooped and he wore an old top hat and a coat that was too small for him. People called him a snake, a pretzel, an oversized frog.

But he was a great public speaker. He would write sentences and paragraphs as they came to him, on small scraps of paper and then copy them out when he thought he had enough material. Most other public speakers at the time wrote flowery speeches that went on longer than they had to but Lincoln's were always plain-spoken and to the point.

He looked awkward and people who heard him called his voice "shrill" and "squeaking," but he spoke with authority and grace. He said in his first inaugural address, "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. ... We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln said, "A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones.

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