Jul. 27, 2006

One Lonely Afternoon

by Russell Edson

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Poem: "One Lonely Afternoon" by Russell Edson from The Rooster's Wife. © BOA Editions, LTD. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

One Lonely Afternoon

Since the fern can't go to the sink for a drink, I graciously
submit myself to the task, returning with two glasses of water.
    And so we sit, the fern and I, sipping water together. ...

    Of course I'm more complex than a fern, full of deep
thoughts as I am. But I lay this aside for the easy company of
an afternoon friendship.
    Yet, had I my druthers, I'd be speeding through the sky for
Stockholm, sipping bloody marys with wedges of lime. ...

    And so we sit one lonely afternoon sipping water together.
The fern looking out of its fronds, as I look out of mine. ...

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Joseph Mitchell, (books by this author) born in Fairmont, North Carolina (1908). He wanted to be a reporter, so he moved to New York City after college, arriving in town the day after the stock market crash in 1929. He got a job covering crime stories in Brooklyn, and he especially enjoyed writing about gangster funerals. He eventually got a job writing for The New Yorker.

In 1965, Mitchell published Joe Gould's Secret, about a man who claimed to have learned the language of seagulls and was translating the poetry of Longfellow into their language. It was Mitchell's last book. He kept going to his New Yorker office every day for the next thirty years, but he never published another word.

It's the birthday of Elizabeth Hardwick, (books by this author) born in Lexington, Kentucky (1916). She is the author of novels such as The Ghostly Lover (1945) and The Simple Truth (1955). In the early 1960s, she and some of her literary friends decided over dinner to found a book-reviewing journal called The New York Review of Books. She said it was dedicated to "the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and, above all, the interesting."

Elizabeth Hardwick said, "The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination."

It was on this day in 1940 that Bugs Bunny made his debut in a short animated film called "A Wild Hare". He was modeled on Groucho Marx, with a carrot rather than a cigar. Mel Blanc gave him a Brooklyn accent. The story line of the cartoon involved Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits, only to have Bugs thwart him at every turn. Bugs Bunny's first line in the cartoon, when he meets Elmer Fudd, is, "What's up, doc?" It was a phrase that one of the writers remembered people saying where he grew up in Texas.

It was on this day in 1793 that Maximilien de Robespierre, became the head the Committee of Public Safety, which led to the Reign of Terror in France.

Robespierre had started out as an idealistic lawyer and judge. He was well known for representing poor people in court, and he often spoke out against the absolute authority of the king. Even after he became a public figure in Paris and Versailles, he lived an extremely frugal life. He lived as a lodger in the house of a carpenter. He worked on the first French constitution and fought for universal suffrage. He opposed all forms of religious and racial discrimination, taking the unpopular view that that even Jews and black slaves should be granted full citizenship.

After the French Revolution broke out, Robespierre was elected to the new National Convention, where he called for the execution of the king. He then worked to unify the various splinter groups within the revolution. At the time, France was being threatened by war with Austria. There was also a great fear of civil war breaking out between the various revolutionary factions. In his diary, Robespierre wrote, "What is needed is one single will."

And so, a man who had fought for constitutional democracy and universal citizenship found himself helping to organize a military dictatorship. On this day in 1793, he took his place on the Committee of Public Safety, which would rule France for the next year. And in order to keep French citizens in line, Robespierre advocated the use of the guillotine, a new machine that was supposed to make all executions efficient and humane. The guillotine was set up in the Place de la Révolution, which later became the Place de la Concorde, and over the next year more than 2,000 people were beheaded for having opposed the Revolution.

At first Robespierre executed people who had supported the monarchy. But then he began to execute revolutionaries who were too moderate. And finally, he began to execute people who had merely opposed him on one issue or another. Eventually, members of the National Convention began to realize that no one was safe, and even they could be the next victims. So they turned on Robespierre. Exactly one year, to the day, after he had taken control of the Committee of Public Safety, he was arrested, and the day after his arrest he went to the guillotine himself.

For more than a year Robespierre had been executing people in the public square to cheering crowds. When Robespierre went to his own death at the guillotine, onlookers said the crowd cheered just as loudly as ever.

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