Jul. 31, 2006

Polar Bear in the Central Park Zoo

by Julie Sheehan

MONDAY, 31 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Polar Bear in the Central Park Zoo" by Julie Sheehan from Orient Point. © W. W. Norton & Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Polar Bear in the Central Park Zoo

Watched, captivating, he swims to the rocky shelf
and berths a beat before pushing off with plate-sized
foot, belly up, yellow head plowing a watery furrow.

He soaks. A forepaw backstrokes the water once,
idly, but with force enough to speed his streamlined
bulk across the dole of open sea he's fathomed utterly.

He dives as if tethered, submerged body spread and flat
against the viewing glass, mounted momentarily, a trophy
hide on the lodge wall. Watchers shriek, but he moves on

his fixed orbit, water-logged planet, up to the rock, a push,
one backstroke, dive, eyes closed the while. His swim,
compulsory as a Busby Berkeley routine, has captivated

the bear, too, or made him half captive, while the other half,
repeating his invention move for move, seeks a different
outcome: a new mercy, colder, austere; more genuine ice.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1964, Ranger 7 radioed to earth the first clear, close-up pictures of the moon. There were 4,000 pictures in all, one thousand times as clear as anything ever produced by earth-bound telescopes. The pictures showed craters three feet in diameter and up to a foot and a half deep. When the pictures were transmitted on closed-circuit TV into the auditorium in Pasadena, California, where lab workers and news people were gathered, people stood on their chairs and cheered.

It's the birthday of the novelist J K (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling, (books by this author) born on the outskirts of Bristol, England (1966). In school, Rowling often entertained the other children at lunch by telling stories in which all of her friends performed heroic and daring deeds. Her parents encouraged her to study French in college so that she could get a job as a bilingual secretary, but she found that she hated secretarial work. Instead of taking notes in the meetings, she daydreamed and wrote possible names for fictional characters in the margins of her notebooks.

Rowling was in her mid-twenties when she took a four-hour journey by train across England. The train was stopped somewhere between Manchester and London when Rowland looked out at a field of cows and suddenly got the idea for a story about a boy who goes to a school for wizardry. She later said, "Harry Potter just strolled into my head fully formed." What she liked about the idea was that it was a story about a boy who is powerless in the ordinary world, but who gets to travel to a place where his power would be almost limitless. By the time the train ride was finished, she had already invented most of the major characters that would appear in the Harry Potter books.

The series features the young wizard Harry Potter, his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, his teachers Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape, and his archrival classmate Draco Malfoy.

She worked on the first Harry Potter book for about four years, during which time she got married, had a daughter, and then got divorced. She was living in Scotland as a single mother, and her apartment was unheated, so she would go to the local café and write, while her daughter slept in the baby carriage. She eventually quit her job and lived on public assistance to finish the book. She finally got an agent in 1995. He told her that he might be able to sell her book, but he advised her to try to write something for adults instead. He told her she'd never be able to make a living writing for children.

But after the publication of her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998), Rowling became one of the best-selling authors of all time. She now has more than 300 million books in print. Her last few books have been among the fastest-selling novels of all time. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which came out in 2005, sold 5.8 million copies in a single week.

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