Feb. 25, 2010

In The Alley

by Ted Kooser

In the alley behind the florist's shop,
a huge white garbage truck was parked and idling.
In a cloud of exhaust, two men in coveralls
and stocking caps, their noses dripping,
were picking through the florist's dumpster
and each had selected a fistful of roses.

As I walked past, they gave me a furtive,
conspiratorial nod, perhaps sensing
that I, too (though in my business suit and tie)
am a devotee of garbage – an aficionado
of the wilted, the shopworn, and the free—
and that I had for days been searching
beneath the heaps of worn-out, faded words
to find this brief bouquet for you.

"In the Alley" by Ted Kooser, from Valentines. © University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

It's the birthday of the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, born in Limoges, France (1841). Renoir used the techniques of Impressionism, ideas that he helped to found, but while most of his friends painted landscapes, he painted people.

It's the birthday of opera star Enrico Caruso, born in Naples (1873). He worked in factories as a teenager, but he had a beautiful tenor voice and he ran away from home to sing. In 1903, he moved to New York to sing for the Metropolitan Opera, and by the end of his first season, audiences went into hysterics when he sang, mobbing the stage and screaming his name.

It's the birthday of George Harrison, born in Liverpool (1943), known as "the quiet Beatle." He was the lead guitarist for the band, and he composed a handful of the Beatles' songs as well, including "Here Comes the Sun" from the Abbey Road album, which he wrote in guitarist friend Eric Clapton's backyard.

He wrote the Beatles' songs "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something," "Taxman," "Piggies," "The Inner Light," and "Savory Truffle." He's the only Beatle to have written an autobiography. It's called I Me Mine (also the title of a Beatles' song he wrote), was published in 1980, and is dedicated "to gardeners everywhere."

It's the birthday of Karl Friedrich May, (books by this author) born in Ernstthal, Germany (1842). He's one of the best-selling German writers of all time, but his stories are mostly about the American Wild West, a place he'd never set foot in when he started writing the stories.

He first encountered the cowboys-and-Indians tales when he was in prison, and he began writing there, too. His most famous novels involve a German immigrant named Charley and his wise Apache chief friend named Winnetou. Since May had never traveled to America, he turned to guide books and maps and travel diaries to give him an idea of the landscape, and the rest he left to imagination.

His books were wildly popular in Germany and the rest of continental Europe, and it was on the basis of his books that many 19th-century Europeans formed impressions of the American West. The books are still popular and widely read in Europe. They've been translated into 30 languages and sold more than 200 million copies.

May himself finally made it to the U.S. to take a look around in 1908, several decades after he'd begun writing his stories. He only made it as far west as Buffalo, New York, though.

It's the birthday of novelist and prolific composer Anthony Burgess, (books by this author) born in Manchester, England (1917), best known for his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), set in futuristic London. He once said, "The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and a failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read."

On this day in 1570, Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England. In a papal bull written in Latin, he declared that "Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime," was a heretic, and he announced that all of the queen's subjects were released from being allegiant to her. A decade before, the English parliament had passed a law that affirmed the Anglican Church's independence from the Roman Catholic Church. A lot of European monarchs had wanted to overthrow Elizabeth of England, but the pope wasn't particularly eager to, since she was fairly tolerant of Catholics' worshipping in private.

But after Catholic rebellions in northern England and in Ireland, the English government persecuted Catholics. Then the pope excommunicated Elizabeth, and then the English government started rounding up Jesuit priests and killing them, on the grounds that they were conspiring against England with Spain.

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