Jan. 15, 2010

At the Vet's

by Maura Stanton

The German shepherd can't lift his hindquarters
off the tiled floor. His middle-aged owner
heaves his dog over his shoulder, and soon
two sad voices drift from the exam room
discussing heart failure, kidneys, and old age
while a rushing woman pants into the office
grasping a terrier with trembling legs
she found abandoned in a drainage ditch.
It's been abused, she says, and sits down,
The terrier curled in her lap, quaking
as the memory of something bad returns and returns.
She strokes its ears, whispering endearments
while my two cats, here for routine checkups,
peer through the mesh of their old green carrier,
the smell of fear so strong on their damp fur
I taste it as I breathe. Soon the woman,
Like the receptionist with her pen in mid-air,
Is listening, too, hushed by the duet
swelling in volume now, the vet's soprano
counterpointed by the owner's baritone
as he pleads with her to give him hope, the vet
trying to be kind, rephrasing the truth
over and over until it becomes a lie
they both pretend to accept. The act's over.
His dog's to stay behind for ultrasound
and kidney tests, and the man, his face
whipped by grief as if he were caught in a wind,
hurries past us and out the front door,
leaving the audience—cats, terrier, people—
sunk in their places, too stunned to applaud.

"At the Vet's" by Maura Stanton, from Immortal Sofa. © University of Illinois Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Faroe Islands' most famous writer, Andreas William Heinesen, (books by this author) born 110 years ago in Tórshavn (1900), a place he called the "navel of the world." The islands, which belong to Denmark, are in chilly waters halfway between Iceland and Scotland.

He spoke Faroese at home, a language descended from Old Norse and now spoken by fewer than 80,000 people in the world. But he wrote his novels and poetry in Danish, which he'd learned at school. Despite critical acclaim as a poet, he was so fretful that his Danish wasn't good enough that he read every single page of his first novel out loud to a native Danish speaker. That novel, published in Denmark in 1934 as Blæsende Gry, was translated into English and published just last year as Windswept Dawn (2009).

All of his books written in the Danish he acquired at school have since been translated into the Faroese that he grew up speaking. His novels Den sorte gryde (1949) and De fortabte spillemænd (1950) have recently been translated into English as well, as The Black Cauldron (2000) and The Lost Musicians (2006).

It's the birthday of a Scottish writer whom Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney adored, who performed regularly on BBC radio, who communicated largely with Post-it notes, and who taught schoolchildren for decades: Ivor Cutler, born in Glasgow (1923). His books include Cock-a-Doodle Don't!!! (1966), Many Flies Have Feathers (1973), Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Volume 2 (1984), Gruts (1986), and Glasgow Dreamer (1990).

On this day in 1759, the British Museum first opened in the Bloomsbury district of London. The objects first housed in the museum were comprised of the life collection of a doctor named Sir Hans Sloane, who had amassed what he called a "Cabinet of Curiosities." The curiosities numbered 71,000 objects; more than half of these things were books and several thousand of them were manuscripts. There were also things to go in a natural history section — dried plants and such — and there were artifacts taken from all over the world.

Sloane didn't want his collection to be dispersed when he died, so for 20,000 pounds he sold it to the nation, care of King George II.

The iconic round British Museum Reading Room, with its blue- and gold- and cream-colored dome, wasn't built until nearly a hundred years later; it opened in 1857 and had room for one million volumes. For the next century and a half, it was accessible only to those who had filled out an application to use the museum's library. The application required a person to list occupation, purpose of study, and names of people to serve as references of good character. Among the lucky to regularly use the exclusive Reading Room: Dracula's Bram Stoker ("Barrister at Law," he wrote on his replacement application), Sherlock Holmes'sSir Arthur Conan Doyle ("physician," said he), as well as Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Gandhi, George Orwell, and Lenin — who put down the pseudonym "Jacob Richter" and was initially denied admission because they couldn't figure out where his reference person resided.

In 1997, the Reading Room underwent a big restoration project, and when it reopened in 2000, it was available — for the first time — to anyone wanting to step inside and take a look.

It's the birthday of black civil rights leader, minister, and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King Jr., (books by this author) born in Atlanta, Georgia (1929). He was chosen to lead a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, when he was only 26. He didn't set out to become civil rights activist; he said later that if he'd known what the job would entail, he might have turned it down. He wasn't even sure he wanted to become a preacher; as a teenager, the way people shouted and stomped in his Baptist church sometimes embarrassed him. But during the boycott, after he was assaulted and arrested and his house was bombed, he experienced what amounted to a religious conversion. He said later that he realized that the movement had far greater force than his own doubts, and that he had to act like a charismatic figurehead even if he didn't feel like one.

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




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