Aug. 2, 2006

Latin Lessons

by Floyd Skloot

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Poem: "Latin Lessons" by Floyd Skloot from The End of Dreams. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Latin Lessons

The daughter of the local florist taught
us Latin in the seventh grade. We sat
like hothouse flowers nodding in a mist
of conjugations, declining nouns that
made little sense and adjectives that missed
the point. She was elegant, shapely, taut.
She was dazzling and classic, a perfect
example to us of such absolute
adjectives as unique or ideal or perfect.
The room held light. Suffering from acute
puberty, we could still learn case by case
to translate with her from the ancient tongue
by looking past her body to the chaste
scribblings she left on the board. We were young
but knew that the ablative absolute
was not the last word in being a part
of something while feeling ourselves apart
from everything that mattered most. We chased
each other on the ballfield after class
though it did no good. What we caught was not
what we were after, no matter how fast
we ran. She first got sick in early fall.
A change in her voice, a flicker of pain
across her face, and nothing was the same.
She came back to us pale and more slender
than ever, a phantom orchid in strong
wind, correcting our pronoun and gender
agreement, verb tense, going over all
we had forgotten while she was gone. Long
before she left for good in early spring,
she made sure the dead language would remain
alive inside us like a buried spring.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1876, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok was killed in what is now Deadwood, South Dakota. He was playing poker when he was shot in the back of the head by a young Jack McCall, at 4:15 p.m. at the No. 10 Saloon. He died with a Smith and Wesson revolver in his holster and holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights.

It's the birthday of best-selling crime novelist Caleb Carr, (books by this author) born in New York City (1955). His father was a good friend of the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. But Caleb Carr didn't learn anything about writing from those guys. He said, "Basically [the Beats] were very loud people who were drunk most of the time. ... They were so concerned with breaking molds and creating new lifestyles that they threw the baby out with the bath water. ... If any element got lost in the Beat equation, it was the idea of children."

Carr said that being surrounded by so many romantic bohemians made him into an old fogey at age four. His parents divorced when he was eight years old, and he spent much of the rest of his childhood in movie theaters. He especially loved war movies because, he said, "I felt a desire to find violence that was ... directed toward some sort of purposeful end."

He wrote a big best-seller in 1994 called The Alienist about a series of murders that had occurred in New York City in the late 1800s, and the investigation of the murders, which involved the police commissioner at the time: Theodore Roosevelt. The book portrays New York City at the turn of the 19th century as a city full of gang violence, racial tensions, drug addiction, and murder.

Carr said, "Part of the reason I set out to write this book was because I was sick of people proclaiming that the world was much better long ago. That's simply not the case. It was just as beastly and grotesque, if not more so."

It's the birthday of writer James Baldwin, (books by this author) born in Harlem Hospital in New York City (1924). He decided that he had to get out of Harlem in order to become a writer, so he moved to Greenwich Village, supporting himself as a dishwasher and a waiter. He would sleep for three or four hours every night, and spend the rest of his free time writing. He had some success publishing book reviews, but he was struggling to write his first novel. He got a grant to help him finish the book, but even that didn't help. In a last ditch effort, he used what money he had left to buy a ticket to Paris.

Baldwin arrived in Paris with only fifty dollars in his pocket. A few days after his arrival, he was locked out of his hotel room for lack of payment. He sold his clothes and his typewriter in order to survive, and then was falsely arrested for stealing a bed sheet and thrown in a French prison. That first day in prison, surrounded by drunks and thieves and robbers, Baldwin said, "It seemed to me that my flight from home was the cruelest trick I had ever played on myself, since it had led me here, down to a lower point than any I could ever in my life have imagined—lower, far, than anything I had seen in that Harlem which I had so hated and so loved."

But he got out of prison. He had almost given up on the novel he'd been writing for years, but a friend set him up in a cottage in the French countryside. Writing in almost total isolation, Baldwin was able to finish the novel in a few months. It came out in 1953 as Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a young preacher based on Baldwin's stepfather. That book was a big success and Baldwin went on to become one of the most renowned writers of his generation. Today he is remembered more for his essays than his fiction, especially in his collection Notes of a Native Son (1955).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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