Mar. 31, 2010

Mud, Apples, Milk

by Michael Walsh

Of all things to miss, it's silly
to miss how cows drowse in mud.
They blink slow as toads.
Instead I should miss
light on the blond corn
or trails of gravel dust
that rose like kites and vanished.

But I don't miss that.
I miss how I could bring
bruised apples, press them
like smelling salts
to sleepy noses.
You had to let go
real fast or risk a finger
to the lick and snap.

I miss their udders too,
the mud fresh as wax
on the swollen skin.
Each day I broke the seals
with hot rags, and milk
flooded my palm—
a white creek down
the gully of my wrist.

"Mud, Apples, Milk" by Michael Walsh, from The Dirt Riddles. © University of Arkansas Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the English poet Andrew Marvell, (books by this author) born at Winestead-in-Holderness, Yorkshire, England (1621), who wrote the poem "To His Coy Mistress":

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime ...
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

It's the birthday of poet and essayist Octavio Paz, (books by this author) born in Mexico City (1914), the son of a lawyer and the grandson of a novelist. In 1950, he published a monumental essay on Mexican national character and culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1990.

On this day in 1889, the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated in Paris. It was built for the Paris Exposition as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and also as a demonstration of the structural capabilities of iron. The tower elicited strong reactions after its opening. A petition of 300 names, including writers Guy de Maupassant, Émile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas the younger, was sent to the city government protesting its construction, declaring it "useless" and a "monstrosity."

De Maupassant hated the tower so much that he started eating in its restaurant every day, because, he said, "It is the only place in Paris where I don't have to see it."

It's the birthday of one of the greatest intellectuals of all time, a man known as "the Father of Modern Philosophy," René Descartes, (books by this author) born in 1596 in La Haye en Touraine, France, which is now named for him, Descartes, France. He's the author of a text that is still required reading for philosophy students around the world, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641).

And he's the man who, in 1637, said, "Cogito ergo sum" — "I think therefore I am." Of course, since he was a Frenchman, he first wrote it as "Je pense donc je suis."

The statement is the sum of an argument in his work Discourse on the Method (1637), written nearly 400 years ago. He realized that some of his ideas about science, like those of his colleague Galileo, were controversial. So he decided to write a book to prove that skepticism about the laws of nature was a necessary step in understanding nature. In it, he described his own experience of methodological skepticism, where he rejected any idea that could be doubted, and then required proof for the idea in order for it to be accepted as knowledge. He doubted everything, even his own existence. But he came to realize that the one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. If he was doubting, he was thinking; if he was thinking, then he existed. Hence his famous conclusion: "I think, therefore I am."

Descartes had been a sickly child, went to Jesuit schools, spent most of his life staying in bed till noon, got a law degree, then settled in the Netherlands, and in his 20 years there, he did most of the writing for which he is famous. When he was in his 50s, Queen Christina of Sweden — age 23 — invited him to Stockholm to be her tutor. It was a job that required him to rise at 5 a.m. every day. He was sleep-deprived, caught a fever, and eventually came down with pneumonia, which killed him.

In the mid-1800s, 72 of Descartes' letters were stolen from the Institut de France. In the 150 years since, France has managed to get back about half of them. Another one was found serendipitously in January of this year by a Dutch scholar named Erik-Jan Bos; he first noticed a citation to the letter while perusing the online archive contents of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, which has an autographed manuscript collection. Haverford had acquired the letter by donation a century ago, unaware that it was stolen. In a New York Times article last month entitled "Descartes Letter Found, Therefore It Is," Patricia Cohen reports that Haverford College's president, who majored in philosophy many years ago, plans to hand-deliver the letter to the Institut de France this June, and that the letter will be published in a collection this year.

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