Aug. 7, 2006

Halley's Comet

by Stanley Kunitz

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Poem: "Halley's Comet" by Stanley Kunitz, from Passing Through. © W.W. Norton & Co. (buy now)

Halley's Comet

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there'd be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground's edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
"Repent, ye sinners!" he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I'd share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family's asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that's where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I'm the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer and editor Anne Fadiman, (books by this author) born in New York City (1953). Her father was the critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman, and she grew up in a literary household, making castles out of the books in her father's library. She became an obsessive collector at an early age, keeping butterflies, beetles, snakeskins, seashells, and cicada shells. At some point she started collecting long rare words, which she continues to do today. One of her favorite long words is "sesquipedalian," which means "long word." She was working as a reporter when she got an assignment to write for The New Yorker about a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her parents' difficulty dealing with the American medical system. The New Yorker decided not to print the article, so Fadiman turned it into her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). It took her eight years to finish the book.

Her collection of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998), is about her deep love of books. She believes that if you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs.

It's the birthday of anthropologist and archeologist Louis Leakey, (books by this author) born in Kabete, Kenya (1903). His parents were Anglican missionaries to Africa, and he lived in Kenya until he was sixteen. He studied anthropology at Cambridge at a time when most anthropologists believed that human beings had originated in Asia. But Leakey had read Darwin's theory that human beings might have originated in Africa, because Africa is the home of our closest relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas. As soon as he graduated from Cambridge, he moved back to Africa to prove Darwin right. In 1948, Leakey and his wife found one of the earliest fossil ape skulls ever discovered; it was between 25 and 40 million years old. It is now believed to be the skull of the ancestor of all large primates, including humans. Then, in 1959, he was with his wife when she found another hominid skull that was 1.75 million years old. It was the oldest skull of a close human relative ever found at that point, and it helped persuade other anthropologists that Africa was indeed the place where human beings had evolved.

It was on this day in 1934 that the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that James Joyce's novel Ulysses (books by this author) was not obscene and could be admitted into the United States.

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