Jul. 6, 2008

Marine Tongue Twister

by John Hollander

On Ocean Avenue she waits
Just outside the Beach Club's gates.
What's she standing around here for?
She sells seashells by the seashore.

"Newly-Cleaned, Gaily Painted and Lacquered
Hen-Lobsters' Carapaces" a placard
Announced from the wall outside her store
(She sells she-shells by the seashore.)

Streaks of sand caress her legs—
The fisherman's daughter we all adore—
From bivalves piled up high in kegs
She shells seashells by the seashore.

With both hands she bends down and dredges
Up cockles and conchs and clams galore;
Her fingers cut from their sharpened edges,
—Sea cells she sells by the she-sore—

With her mortar aimed at the feminists'
Meeting, enraged with shaking fists,
Fighting her War to End All War
She shells she-cells by the she-shore

The wind salutes her in its song
Accompanied by the breakers' roar;
Both locals and visitors all day long
See shells she sells by the seashore.

"Marine Tongue Twister" by John Hollander, from A Draft of Light: Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1896, the writer O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) hopped a train for New Orleans rather than stand trial for embezzlement (books by this author). He was raised in North Carolina, but relocated to Texas after he began to show symptoms of tuberculosis. He worked in Austin as a teller for the First National Bank, got married, and had a child. In his spare time, he edited a humor newspaper called The Rolling Stone. Then he moved to Houston, but was summoned back to Austin when shortages were discovered in the bank's ledgers. They were probably due to bad bookkeeping, and he might have escaped conviction, but on the way from Houston to Austin he lost his nerve, stepped across the platform, and boarded a train going the opposite way. He landed in New Orleans, where he took a job on the docks. From there he went to Central America, making friends with criminals who gave him money after they pulled off big robberies. In 1897, word reached him that his wife was dying, and he went back to Texas, knowing he faced a certain prison sentence. His wife died, and he served five years in an Ohio penitentiary. There he began to write short stories, some of which he published under the name of one of the guards, Orrin Henry.

It's the birthday of the Dalai Lama, born in Taktser, Tibet (1935). When the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, monks from the city of Lhasa set out to find a child who would prove to be the reincarnation of the Buddhist leader. They eventually found him in the village of Taktser, in a three-year-old boy named Lhamo, whom they took back to Lhasa and installed as the 14th Dalai Lama. He was educated by the monks and followed the same curriculum for all Buddhist monks pursuing a doctorate in Buddhist studies - including logic, medicine, Tibetan art and culture, philosophy, and Sanskrit - and he lived in a 1,000-room palace. Then in 1950, when he was 15, the Chinese invaded Tibet, touching off nine years of conflict, which he tried in vain to mediate. In 1959, 80,000 Tibetans died resisting the Chinese. In March of that year the Dalai Lama received an invitation from a military leader of Communist China to attend a theatrical show, but when the invitation was extended a second time, it provided that the Dalai Lama have his bodyguards unarmed and that he not be accompanied by any Tibetan soldiers. The Dalai Lama consulted an oracle and received specific instructions to leave the country, so he snuck out disguised as a common soldier and fled to India where he was aided by Indian guards and granted asylum by the government. He's lived there since 1960 and has worked to bring a nonviolent resolution to the conflict in Tibet. He received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

It's the birthday of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, born near Mexico City (1907). Her father was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to Mexico, and he operated a photography studio. She admired him greatly and from an early age hung around at his studio and learned how to hand paint color onto black-and-white photographs. She contracted polio when she was six years old, which left her right leg deformed and then, when she was 18, she was in a streetcar accident in which she was impaled by a steel bar. The accident broke her spine in three places, her leg in 11 places, and both her feet and her collarbone and pelvis were crushed. She nearly died and spent months in a plaster cast. To help her pass the time, her mother built her a special bedside painting stand, and she began painting for the first time.

She suffered from health problems for the rest of her life. Doctors operated on her more than 30 times, trying to fix problems with her back and her legs. She had several miscarriages. She eventually had to have one leg amputated. She was forced to wear spine-supporting corsets, and she spent months at a time in bed. It was during these bed-ridden periods that she produced most of her paintings. She had few subjects to chose from, so most of the time she just set up a mirror and painted herself. She said, "I paint myself, because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

She didn't have her own major solo exhibition until 1953, the same year she had her leg amputated. She was carried into the show on a stretcher and then laid down on a four-poster bed in the middle of the gallery, as though she were one of the art works. She died the following year. She was 47 years old.

Over the course of her lifetime, she only produced about 140 paintings. About a third of her paintings are self-portraits that depict physical or psychological pain. She's now considered one of the greatest Mexican artists, and one of the greatest female artists of the 20th century.

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




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