May 28, 2007

Three Epitaphs

by X. J. Kennedy

MONDAY, 28 MAY, 2007
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Poem: "Three Epitaphs" by X.J. Kennedy, from Peeping Tom's Cabin: Comic Verse 1928-2008. © BOA Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Three Epitaphs

For a Postal Clerk

Here lies wrapped up tight in sod
Henry Harkins c/o God.
On the day of Resurrection
May be opened for inspection.

For a Rail Traveler

Here lie Jonah Jones's uncoupled remains:
A cowcatcher caught him as he changed trains.
His fragments took off in a few directions.
May he rise at the last trump to make connections.

For a Washer of Dishes

Here rattle about in the suds of the grave
The porcelain bones of a deep-sink slave.
Impeccable platters were what he wrought
With a face like a rag wrung dry of thought.
Let the scouring rain and the sponging worm
Deliver his spirit from crust and crumb
And stack him up high beyond sin and stain
In the light of the Lord to let him drain.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Memorial Day, first observed on this day in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, where members of both the Union and Confederate Armies were buried. It was the idea of Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, who said he was creating Memorial Day, "For the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."

It was on this day in 1902 that the novelist Owen Wister (books by this author), published his book The Virginian (buy now), which is now considered the first true Western.

Wister was born in Philadelphia, and his first vocation was music. He went to Wyoming for his health, fell in love with it, and he was inspired to write a novel about a cowboy known only as "the Virginian," who moves to the town of Bear Creek, Wyoming, gets a job as the foreman on a ranch, and falls in love with the new schoolmarm, Molly Wood. But he crosses paths with a group of cattle rustlers and is forced to preside over the lynching of a cattle thief. The leader of the cattle rustlers, a man named Trampas, threatens to murder the Virginian, and he has to decide whether to leave town or fight back. The novel contains the famous line, "This town ain't big enough for both of us," and it ends with a dramatic shootout in the street.

It was one of the most successful novels ever published at the time, selling 20,000 copies in its first month in print, 300,000 by the end of 1902, and 1 1/2 million copies by the time of Wister's death in 1938. One of the few people who didn't like the novel was Owen Wister's mother. She told Wister that the book wasn't serious enough, and she didn't like that it seemed to advocate violence. Wister took his mother's opinion to heart. His publishers begged him for a sequel, but never wrote another book about the American West.

It's the birthday of the man who created James Bond, novelist Ian Fleming (books by this author), born in London, England (1908). He wanted to be a diplomat, but he failed the Foreign Office examination and decided to go into journalism. He worked for the Reuters News Service in London, Moscow, and Berlin, and then during World War II he served as the assistant to the British director of naval intelligence.

After the war, he bought a house in Jamaica, where he spent his time fishing and gambling and bird watching. He started to get bored, so he decided to try writing a novel about a secret agent. He named the agent James Bond after the author of a bird-watching book. He said, "I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find." He made Bond a much more heroic version of himself: a member of the British intelligence service, code name 007, with a license to kill. In the first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953) (buy now), James Bond gambles with Nazis and takes them for everything they're worth.

It's the birthday of novelist Walker Percy (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1916). His first and most famous novel was The Moviegoer (1961) (buy now). It was about a man who feels joy only while watching the movies.

Walker Percy said, "We love those who know the worst of us and don't turn their faces away."

It's the birthday of poet May Swenson (books by this author), born in Logan, Utah (1919). She wrote, "The summer that I was ten – / Can it be there was only one summer that I was ten? It must / have been a long one then."

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




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