Dec. 6, 2006


by James Armstrong

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Poem: "Prayer" by James Armstrong, from Blue Lash. © Milkweed Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


If we don't believe in heaven, who reads the letters we mail there
        every evening?
Children send most of them, kneeling by the bedpost
imagining the universe under the care of a father
who rumbles behind the newspaper
smelling of cigarettes and Old Spice.
To grow up is to lose one's God at sea —
better to lose one than be one.
If you believe the world is perfect,
think of Keats dying young.
I never would have seen it if I hadn't believed it,
the saying goes. Somebody has to awaken us
to the time of day it is when the earth is empty
of any intention, or any human presence.

And yet it is noon, and here you are — your blue headlands
and swords, your wave-moistened silences.
As if at the heart of things
there were a heart.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Austrian avant-garde playwright and novelist, Peter Handke, (books by this author) born in Griffen, Austria (1942). He's one of the most influential and controversial writers in the German language. His first play was called Offending the Audience (1966), and his novels include The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) and Nonsense and Happiness (1976).

It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershvin on the East Side of New York City (1896). He's considered one of the great lyricists of the 20th century, best known for writing the lyrics to songs like "I've Got Rhythm" (1930) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (1937), with music by his younger brother, George Gershwin.

And today is the anniversary of two terrible explosions: the Monongah Mining Disaster, and the Halifax Explosion.

The Monongah Disaster took place on this day in 1907 in Monongah, West Virginia. Three hundred and eighty men and boys were working in a mine for the Fairmount Coal Company, when around 10:00 in the morning there was a tremendous explosion that shook the ground as far as eight miles away. Nearby buildings were destroyed, streetcars were knocked over, and people in the local town were thrown to the ground. Parts of the mine caved in and the entrances were blocked.

Rescue workers began attempting to find survivors, but the mine shafts were full of poisonous gas. Because there was no such thing as air tanks at the time, rescue workers could only search the mine shafts for 15 minutes at a time. In all, 362 men and boys died from the explosion and the cave-in, leaving behind more than 250 widows and more than 1,000 fatherless children. It was the worst mining disaster in American history. Almost half the men who died in the Monongah Disaster were Italian immigrants, and there's a memorial dedicated to the disaster is in a small village in Italy.

And it was on this day in 1917 that an accidental explosion destroyed a quarter of the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the height of World War I, and Halifax was serving as an important port city for many of the ships carrying supplies for the battlefront in Europe. One of the ships coming into the port that day was a French munitions ship called the Mont Blanc, carrying 200 tons of TNT, 2,300 tons of other explosives, as well as 10 tons of cotton and 35 tons of highly flammable chemicals stored in vats on the ship's upper deck.

As the Mont Blanc sailed through the narrow channel into the Halifax Harbor, it collided with a Norwegian freighter. The collision started a fire on the Mont Blanc, and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The crew piled into lifeboats and then paddled frantically away. Unfortunately, the fire drew a crowd of onlookers along the shore of the channel. The docks filled with spectators, trams slowed down, people stood at office windows and on factory roofs to see the blaze. Then, a few minutes after the fire had started, the Mont Blanc exploded.

It was the single most powerful man-made explosion at that point in human history, and there wouldn't be another more powerful explosion until the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The blast wave of water hit the shore, sweeping away buildings, bridges, roads, vehicles, and people. City streets split open into deep fissures. Houses, churches, schools, and factories collapsed. The entire city was showered with debris. Virtually every building in the city had its windows broken. About a quarter of the city, within a square mile of the blast, was completely destroyed.

Almost 2,000 people were killed in the blast and as many as 9,000 were seriously injured, many of them blinded by pieces of broken glass. Thousands of people were left homeless in the middle of a bitter winter. Volunteers poured in from the United States and Great Britain to help in the recovery efforts, and children who survived the blast were photographed for postcards to be sold to help rebuild the city.

Even though World War I was being fought across the Atlantic, Halifax was damaged far greater than any European city. It is the worst disaster of any kind in Canadian history.

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




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