Dec. 3, 2008


by Patrick Phillips

Touched by your goodness, I am like
that grand piano we found one night on Willoughby
that someone had smashed and somehow
heaved through an open window.

And you might think by this I mean I'm broken
or abandoned, or unloved. Truth is, I don't
know exactly what I am, any more
than the wreckage in the alley knows
it's a piano, filling with trash and yellow leaves.

Maybe I'm all that's left of what I was.
But touching me, I know, you are the good
breeze blowing across its rusted strings.

What would you call that feeling when the wood,
even with its cracked harp, starts to sing?

"Piano" by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © The University of Georgia Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, (books by this author) born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Berdichev, which is now in the Ukraine. His father was a scholar and an outspoken opponent of the oppressive regime. He was arrested, and the family was exiled to a northern province in Russia, where both Joseph's parents contracted tuberculosis and died. So the boy went to live with his uncle in Switzerland. His uncle was kind and supportive, and he gave his nephew a good education. But Conrad was restless; he wanted to travel. So as a teenager, he headed to France, and from there, he went to sea. He ran guns, he smuggled, and he got himself in debt. He couldn't pay his creditors, he tried to commit suicide but failed, and he lost his job. But his uncle paid off his debts, and Józef changed his name to Joseph Conrad and went back to sea with the British.

In 1890, he captained a steamboat into the Congo, which was then the Belgian Congo, controlled by King Leopold II. He saw horrible atrocities there. People had been forced into slave labor camps, where many of them were abused and killed. He called it "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience."

He went back to England, settled in Kent, and never worked as a sailor again. He wrote adventure stories, and 10 years after returning from the Congo, he wrote Heart of Darkness (1902). It's about a man's journey down a river into the middle of Africa and about a powerful and mysterious trading agent named Kurtz. Kurtz has established himself as a god among the natives, surrounding his trading post with severed heads on stakes.

Joseph Conrad said, "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything."

It was on this day in 1926 that the mystery novelist Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire, England. Her abandoned car was found in a chalk pit seven miles from her house. The whole country was fascinated, and the story got lots of media attention. Police and ordinary citizens alike organized huge search parties.

Then, 11 days later, Agatha Christie was found in a luxury hotel. She was staying under a different name, and she claimed that she couldn't remember a thing. It had been a hard year for Christie — her mother had died, and her husband had left her for his young mistress. To this day, no one knows if she had legitimate amnesia, or if it was a publicity stunt to raise book sales, or a way to publicly expose her husband's infidelity. But all the media attention made her even more famous, and she ended up as one of the best-selling authors of all time.

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




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