Jun. 1, 2009

Four Kinds of Lilacs

by Leo Dangel

"Why don't you turn at the next corner,"
she said, "and take another road home.
Let's go past that farm with all the
different colored lilacs."

"That's seven miles out of the way,"
he said. "I wanted to plant the rest
of the corn before evening. We
can look at lilacs some other time."

"It'll take only a few minutes"
she said. "You know that lilacs
aren't in bloom for long—if we
don't go now, it will be too late."

"We drove past there last year,"
he said. "They're like any other lilacs
except for the different colors. The rest
of the year, they're all just bushes."

"They're lilac, purple, white, and pink,"
she said. "And today, with no breeze,
the scent will hang in the air—no flowers
smell as good as lilacs in the spring."

"I thought of planting lilacs once,"
he said, "for a windbreak in the grove.
The good smell lasts only a few days.
I suppose we can go, if we hurry."

"Now slow up," she said.
"Last year, you drove by so fast
we couldn't even get a good look.
It wouldn't hurt to take it easy."

"Well, there they are," he said,
"and looking pretty scraggly—past
full bloom already. You should
have thought of doing this sooner."

"Four Kinds of Lilacs" by Leo Dangel, from Home from the Field: Collected Poems. © Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today's the birthday of Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe — born Norma Jean Mortenson in Los Angeles, California (1926) — who said, "I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful."

It's the birthday of Brigham Young, born in Whitingham, Vermont (1801). He got married in 1824, when he was 23, and he and his wife joined the Methodist Church. In April of 1830, Samuel Smith, the brother of the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, passed through Young's town to distribute copies of the Book of Mormon. Smith gave a copy to Brigham's brother Phineas, and the book circulated through the Young family until it finally came into the hands of Brigham Young. Two years later,  he was baptized as a Latter-day Saint. He and his brother decided to make the 325-mile journey from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, to meet the leader of Mormonism,  Joseph Smith.

When Smith was killed in 1844, Young was made president of the Mormon Church. After being threatened and attacked by locals in various Midwestern towns, he led a group on a trek to the West, searching for a place to set up the Mormon headquarters. He finally decided on Salt Lake City, Utah.

He oversaw the construction of canals, roads, telegraph lines, gristmills, woolen mills, iron foundries, and railroads. Within 10 years, about 100 Mormon colonies had been established in the American West. By the time of Young's death in 1877, nearly 400 colonies had been established and Young had made about $600,000, making him the richest businessman in Utah at the time.

It's the birthday of Egyptian playwright and poet Naguib Surur, born in Cairo (1932).

He's the author of eight plays, five books of poetry, and four essay collections, including a scholarly study of fellow Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. And yet the work for which he is most famous of all was never actually published. It's a 6,000-word poem, written in a stream-of-conscious style and full of sexual imagery. It's filled with tirades against the government and high culture and also filled with beautiful lyric passages that are considered some of the best ever in modern Egyptian poetry.

Though Surur never published the poem (it never would have made it past Egypt's censorship laws), copies were immediately available all over Egypt on audio cassette with Surur himself reading the poem aloud. It's still easy to get a hold of an audio copy in Egypt today, and many Egyptians are familiar with the work.

Surur suffered from severe depression toward the end of his life, and he died at the early age of 46, in 1978. Almost a quarter of a century later (in 2000), his son Shohdy Surur, a professional online editor living in Cairo, posted the poem on a U.S.-based Web site. About a year later, Egyptian government officials knocked on the door of Shohdy's Surur's Cairo home, raided his computers, and interrogated him for three days. They arrested him on charges of obscenity for posting on the Web the poem that his father had written 30 years earlier. He was sentenced to a year in prison for violating a section of Egyptian penal code that forbids possessing or distributing material "with intent to corrupt public morals."

Shohdy Surur fled to Russia, where he holds dual citizenship. He did not return to Egypt for his appeal trial. Reporters without Borders and other international agencies that promote freedom of expression attempted to intervene, but Surur would likely have to serve his prison sentence if he returned to Egypt, so he remained in exile abroad.

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




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