Jun. 27, 2008

My Grandmother's Ghost

by James Wright

She skimmed the yellow water like a moth,
Trailing her feet across the shallow stream;
She saw the berries, paused and sampled them
Where a slight spider cleaned his narrow tooth.
Light in the air, she fluttered up the path,
So delicate to shun the leaves and damp,
Like some young wife, holding a slender lamp
To find her stray child, or the moon, or both.
Even before she reached the empty house,
She beat her wings ever so lightly, rose,
Followed a bee where apples blew like snow;
And then, forgetting what she wanted there,
Too full of blossom and green light to care,
She hurried to the ground, and slipped below.

"My Grandmother's Ghost" by James Wright, from Above the River: The Complete Poems. © Noonday and University Press of New England. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Alice McDermott, Alice McDermott born in Brooklyn, New York (1953). She grew up on Long Island in an Irish Catholic family where most of the men worked for the Con Edison electric company. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was 10 years old, but, she said, "My family, with completely good intentions, discouraged me [from becoming a writer] because it seemed so removed to them; they saw me starving in a garret and tried to steer me away from it the same way they tried to steer me away from cocaine."

McDermott has gone on to write several novels about Irish Catholic families in the suburbs around New York. Her books include That Night (1987), Charming Billy (1998), and Child of My Heart (2002). Her most recent novel is After This (2006).

It's the birthday of science fiction writer James Patrick Hogan, (books by this author)born in London, England (1941), to a working class family. He writes science fiction based on "hard" science, which makes his books popular among scientists as well as the public. Many of his books also blend science fiction with politics. His more recent books include Mind Matters: Exploring the World of Artificial Intelligence (1998), Cradle of Saturn (1999), The Legend that was Earth (2000), and Moon Flower (2008).

He said, "I like playing with ideas that invite people to think. I also like old-fashioned, upbeat themes and happy endings. Although life doesn't always seem that way, I believe that in the long term things get better. I don't think we're about to overpopulate the planet, blow ourselves into oblivion, poison ourselves into extinction, degenerate into Nazis, or disappear under our own garbage. For ten thousand years the power of human reason and creativity has continued to build better tomorrows, and nothing says it has to change now."

It's the birthday of poet and children's author Lucille Clifton, (books by this author) born in Depew, New York (1936). She had six children under 10 years old when her first poetry collection, Good Times (1969), was called one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times.

It's the birthday of poet Frank O'Hara, (books by this author)born in Baltimore, Maryland (1926). He wanted to be a pianist when he was growing up, but while he was a student at Harvard, he met the poets John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, and they persuaded him to write poetry too. He moved to New York City in 1951. He got a job selling post cards at the Museum of Modern Art, and he slowly worked his way up to become one of the curators.

He fell in love with the abstract art of the 1950s, and he believed that poems should be improvisational, like action paintings. At the height of his career, he wrote constantly and stuffed his poems into his desk drawers, often forgetting about them.

Frank O'Hara wrote, "oh god it's wonderful/ to get out of bed/ and drink too much coffee/ and smoke too many cigarettes/ and love you so much."

It's the birthday of author and educator Helen Keller, (books by this author) born in Tuscumbia, Alabama (1880). She lost her sight and her hearing when she was 20 months old. No one knows what disease she caught, but it was probably scarlet fever or meningitis. After she recovered, she had not only become blind and deaf, she'd also become extremely angry. She flew into tantrums at the slightest provocation, kicking, screaming, and biting her family members.

But in spite of her disabilities, her parents could tell she was extremely intelligent. She invented her own simple system of sign language. She could fold laundry and could pick out her favorite outfits. And when she learned how to use a key, she managed to lock her mother in a closet, on purpose.

Helen Keller's parents read about the work that inventor Alexander Graham Bell had recently been doing, teaching deaf people how to speak. He came and met young Helen, and he advised the family to hire a teacher from the Perkins Institution for children with disabilities. The teacher who eventually came to tutor Helen was a woman named Anne Sullivan. The day that Helen Keller met Anne Sullivan for the first time, she knocked out one of Sullivan's front teeth.

But Anne Sullivan stuck with the job. Helen Keller learned to read letters that Anne Sullivan spelled out on her palm, but at first, Helen could only mimic the letters that Sullivan taught her. Then, one day, Anne Sullivan spelled the word "water" on Keller's palm while Keller held her hand in the water from the well. Keller later wrote, "I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me." Within the next few hours, Helen learned 30 new words, and by the end of the month, she'd stopped her temper tantrums.

Within a year of Keller's breakthrough, newspapers all over the United States and Europe were writing about her achievements. When she was eight years old, she met President Cleveland at the White House. She went on to college at Radcliffe, where she wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life, which came out in 1903.

On this day in 1829, English scientist James Smithson died. Even though he had never been to America, he left behind a will that said that if his only nephew died without any heirs, his whole estate should go to the United States of America, to found the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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