Nov. 23, 2006

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Poem: "LOOK" by Patrick Phillips, from Chattahoochee. © The University of Arkansas Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


I'd like to ask my mother
why I'm here, straddling
one thigh of her bell-bottom jeans,
listening to her whisper look
look sweetie
in my ear.

But I can't stop staring
at our fat cat Walina,
ancestor of every cat
that ever roamed that house,

as she blinks back at me,
licks between her claws,
then turns again to eating
the clear, vein laced skin
stretched over the faces
of her babies squirming
in a pulled-out dresser drawer.

I'd like to ask—but this is back
before anything means
anything, when it all just is,
and even the squinting kittens
are like a game my mother made up
to pass the drizzly afternoon.

Back in the cold, dark evening
of childhood, where I'm always
alone: watching Walina
close her mouth around the runt—
the sleepy one, the one too weak
to butt its head against her,
that meows and meows
though no sound comes out,
when she drops it outside the drawer.

This is in the oldest room
of the house behind my eyelids
where the world began:
where a light bulb pops and flickers
over everything, and no one
ever comes to stop the kitten
from dragging its sack of blood
all over the white linoleum.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Thanksgiving Day, the day Americans express gratitude for their good fortune by eating one of the biggest meals of the year. Americans as a whole will consume about 10 million tons of turkey this week, along with about 75 million pounds of cranberry sauce.

On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed the 26th of that November the first national Thanksgiving Day under the Constitution. On October 3, 1863, in the wake of victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln decided to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation declaring the fourth Thursday in November national Thanksgiving Day. In 1941 Congress made it official.

It was on this day in 1903 that the opera singer Enrico Caruso made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, appearing in ''Rigoletto.'' At that time, the New York Met was the world's leading opera house, and Caruso made it there from a childhood in the slums of Naples. His auto-mechanic father had tried to get him to work in a factory, but he'd run away from home at 16 and supported himself singing at weddings and funerals.

He'd begun his career as an opera singer in 1894, at an amateur opera house. He was paid 16 dollars for two appearances. He slowly developed a reputation throughout Europe and around the world. But he was still only known to opera enthusiasts when the manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York signed him to a five-year contract for 50 performances a season.

There was a good deal of anticipation among opera aficionados for his American debut on this day in 1903, and most critics agreed that he did a good job, but it wasn't a standout performance. The critic for The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Caruso has a natural and free delivery and his voice carries well without forcing."

But over the course of that first opera season, Caruso began to relax and he sang better and better with each performance. By the end of the season, audiences were going into hysterics, women jumping onto stage.

Less than three months after his Metropolitan debut, Caruso made some recordings for the Victor Company, and these recordings of his voice helped transform the phonograph from a curiosity into a household item. Caruso could be said to be the first vocal recording star.

He went on to perform 17 consecutive seasons at the Met, giving a total of 626 performances in New York, in 37 different operas. He gave his final performance at the Met on December 11, 1920, but he had to leave the stage after the first act, because he was coughing up blood. It was the final performance of his life. It turned out he had pneumonia, which killed him a few months later.

It was on this day in 1889 that the jukebox made its debut at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. It consisted of an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph inside a freestanding oak cabinet to which were attached four stethoscope-like tubes. Each tube could be activated by depositing a coin so that four people could listen to a single recording at one time.

Eventually jukeboxes changed the music business. Many early radio programs refused to play country, blues, or jazz, so it was jukeboxes that made all that music available in taverns, restaurants, diners, and army bases.

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




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