Aug. 28, 2007


by Rita Dove

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Poem: "Parlor" by Rita Dove, from On the Bus with Rosa Parks. © W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


We passed through
on the way to anywhere else.
No one lived there
but silence, a pale china gleam,

and the tired eyes of saints
aglow on velvet.
Mom says things are made
to be used. But Grandma insisted
peace was in what wasn't there,
strength in what was unsaid.

It would be nice to have a room
you couldn't enter, except in your mind.
I like to sit on my bed
plugged into my transistor radio,
"Moon River" pouring through my head.

How do you use life?
How do you feel it? Mom says

things harden with age; she says
Grandma is happier now. After the funeral,
I slipped off while they stood around
remembering-away from all
the talking and eating and weeping

to sneak a peek. She wasn't there.
Then I understood why
she had kept them just so:

so quiet and distant,
the things that she loved.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Rita Dove, (books by this author) born in Akron, Ohio (1952). Growing up in school, she was at the top of her class, chosen as one of 100 of the best high school students in the country to visit the president of the United States. Her parents assumed that she would go on to become a doctor or lawyer, so when she announced she wanted to be a poet, they weren't sure what to make of it. She said, "[My father] swallowed once and said, 'Well, I've never understood poetry, so don't be upset if I don't read it." Her teachers at college told her that she was throwing her education away if she didn't study something more practical.

But with her poetry collection Thomas and Beulah (1986), based loosely on the lives of her grandparents, she became only the second African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and she went on to become the first African-American National Poet Laureate.

It's the birthday of the novelist Janet Frame, (books by this author) born in Dunedin, New Zealand (1924). After a nervous breakdown as a young woman, she was confined to a mental institution for 10 years, misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, and subjected to electroshock therapy. She managed to write a book of short stories in the hospital, The Lagoon (1951), and it was published without her knowledge.

When a hospital official learned that the book had won numerous literary awards, he arranged for Frame's release from the hospital, and she managed to escape the frontal lobotomy that she had been scheduled to receive. She went on to write many novels, including Faces in the Water (1961) and The Edge of the Alphabet (1962).

She said, "I write from obsession, habit, and because I have a thorn in my foot, head and heart and it hurts and I can't walk or think or feel until I remove it."

Today is believed to be the date in 474 A.D. when the Western Roman Empire, which had lasted for almost 500 years, came to an end as Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by a barbarian.

Historians have been theorizing about the causes of the fall of Rome ever since. Edward Gibbon's book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) put forward the idea that the Christian Church was to blame. After Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the best and the brightest leaders became leaders of the church rather than leaders of the government or the military. Another theory is that the aqueducts, which carried the water supply, were lined with lead, and so the Romans slowly went crazy. Some geologists believe that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius released so much ash into the air that it ruined Roman agriculture and weakened the empire. One of the more recent theories is that the Roman army had been infiltrated by the barbarians themselves.

But whatever the cause, the fall of Rome actually wasn't the catastrophic event most people think it was. So-called barbarian rulers kept most of the basic laws in place, Latin remained the official language of government, and everyone remained Christian.

It's the birthday of Germany's great man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (books by this author) born in Frankfurt (1749). He made his name with his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), and then went on to spend more than 50 years writing his masterpiece, Faust. The first volume was published in 1808, and he didn't finish the second volume until a few months before he died.

Goethe said, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words."

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