May 4, 2006


by David Romtvedt

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Poem: "Still" by David Romtvedt from Some Church. © Milkweed Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The children are sleeping
and the cows and chickens are sleeping,
and the grass itself
is sleeping.
The machines are off
and the neighbor's lights,
a half mile away, are out,
and the moon is hanging
like a powdered face
in a darkened room,
and the snow
is shining under stars
the way we are shining here
in our cold skins
under warm quilts.
We pull our shirts over our heads
and toss them to the floor
and the only thing grotesque
is the space through which
we stumble each night.
I roll to you and put my hand
on your skin. You shiver and smile,
"Cold. But not too cold.
Some cold I like."
And draw my hand closer.
I pull it away
and jam it in my armpit,
and while I wait for the blood
I look at you, admire your face,
your neck and breasts,
your belly and thighs,
the shadowy double of you
thrown by candlelight to the wall—
There is no season, no grass
gone brown, no cold,
and no one to say we are anything
but beautiful, swimming together
across the wide channel of night.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1626 that Dutch explorer Peter Minuit landed on what is now Manhattan Island. Two days later he bought the island from the Algonquin Indians for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars. The settlement was called New Amsterdam.

The Dutch were drawn to Manhattan because of its extraordinary fertility and variety of wildlife. There were tall oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, maples, cedars and pines right up to the edge of the water. A vast array of flowers, including many roses, grew wild on the island, and the fragrance of flowers drifted far out to sea. Sailors coming into harbor said it was one of the sweetest-smelling shores they'd ever approached.

Animals were also in great abundance. There were huge twelve-inch oysters and six-foot lobsters in the bay, and so many fish in the streams that they could be caught by hand.

The Algonquins sold the island for about sixty guilders' worth of cloth, beads, hatchets and other merchandise. On the west side of the island there was a cemetery, a small farm, an orchard, and two wealthy estates. Most of the houses were built along the East River, since its shore was more protected from winds than the shore of the Hudson. The main street was built over an old Indian Path running from the southern tip of the island north. First it was called Heere Straat, which meant Gentlemen's Street, but it eventually came to be known as Breede Wegh—which became the name we know it by today, Broadway.

It was on this day in 1886 that the Haymarket Square Riot broke out in Chicago. The day before, on May 3rd, police had shot several lumber workers, killing one of them, after a strike at the McCormick lumber plant turned violent. To protest the police actions, a second demonstration was held in Haymarket Square on May 4th.

It was a peaceful demonstration, attended by the mayor and about 1,500 men, and after it started to rain, most of the crowd went home. The final speaker, a man named Samuel Fielden, was about to finish his speech when the police arrived and demanded that the crowd disperse. Fielding shouted, "We are peaceable," and suddenly a bomb flew through the air, trailing sparks. It struck the ground near the police and exploded, killing seven policemen. The surviving policemen attacked the crowd with their clubs and pistols.

The identity of the bomber was never proven. Thirty-one prominent labor leaders were arrested, eight were convicted of having planned the bombing, and four were hanged with almost no proof.

It's the birthday of Horace Mann, born in Franklin, Massachusetts (1796). He was the first great American advocate of public education. He believed that in a democratic society, education should be free and universal.

It's the birthday of Thomas Henry Huxley, (books by this author) born in Ealing, England (1825). The grandfather of Aldous Huxley, Thomas was an English biologist and educator. He coined the word "agnostic."

It's the birthday of the man credited with inventing the piano, Bartolomeo Cristofori, born in Padua, Italy (1655). He had replaced the string-plucking mechanism of the harpsichord with hammers, which allowed the player to adjust its volume by applying different degrees of force to the keys. He called his invention, "the harpsichord that plays soft and loud." As the instrument grew more popular, the name was shortened to "soft-loud" and finally to "soft." In Italian, the word for "soft" is "piano."

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