May 18, 2010

First Year Teacher to His Students

by Gary J. Whitehead

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else's house
in a land you've never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you'll never now forget of someone's lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas...and all your life it'll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.

"First Year Teacher to His Students" by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Omar Khayyám, (books by this author) born in Nishapur, Iran (1048). During his lifetime, he was known as a scientist and a mathematician, and his treatise on algebra is considered one of the greatest mathematical works of the Middle Ages. But today we know him for his Rubáiyát — which means, simply, "quatrains," four-lined stanzas with a rhyming pattern.

In 1859, E.B. Cowell, a scholar of Persian at Oxford University, stumbled on a manuscript copy of 158 of Khayyám's quatrains at Oxford's Bodleian Library. He passed it on to one of his students, Edward FitzGerald, and FitzGerald translated 75 of the quatrains. He thought some of the quatrains were too sensual or too irreverent, so those he left in Persian, and he made liberal changes to the verses he did translate. FitzGerald self-published the Rubáiyát, and sold it in a local bookstore for a shilling, about 12 cents. It became one of the most reproduced works of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Rubáiyát has been translated by many translators since then, some of them much more faithful to the original text, but it is FitzGerald's translation that remains the most popular in English. Here is his translation of one of Khayyám's quatrains:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow.

It was on this day in 1897, shortly before the novel itself was published, that the Irish writer Bram Stoker (books by this author) held a dramatic reading of Dracula in an effort to protect the copyright.

Stoker was well respected by the time he published Dracula, with four other novels to his name. But his novels didn't sell well enough for him to make a living, so he also worked as the manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London.

He spent years researching vampire stories and the folklore of Eastern Europe, especially Transylvania (which is now Romania). There were other vampire novels out there, most notably Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, the story of a female vampire who falls in love with and destroys beautiful girls, set in the forest of southeastern Austria. But Bram Stoker never actually visited Transylvania, and his book was a mixture of inspiration from Eastern Europe and from Britain.

The name Dracula came from one of the most brutal historical figures in the history of Eastern Europe, Vlad III, also known as Vlad the Impaler and Vlad Dracula. His father, Vlad II, took the name Vlad Dracul when he joined the Order of the Dragon — "Dracul" means "dragon" in Romanian, although it also means "devil." The Order of the Dragon was a chivalric order for nobility, committed to upholding Christianity and fighting the Ottomans. So Vlad II's son took the name of Dracula, or Son of the Dragon, and after he died he was called Vlad the Impaler because he tortured and killed his victims by impaling them. He killed women and children as freely as soldiers, and his brutal tactics included nailing turbans to victims' heads, skinning them, making them eat the flesh of people they knew, and all sorts of awful torture. No one is sure how many people Vlad Dracula killed, but estimates say between 40,000 and 100,000.

So it was this man's legacy that Bram Stoker gave to his evil vampire protagonist, who was originally slated to be named Count Wampyr, but renamed Dracula.

But the character of Dracula was not based on Vlad so much as on Stoker's friend and colleague, the actor Sir Henry Irving, who ran the Lyceum Theatre and had asked Stoker to be the manager. Stoker wrote about Irving:"It was marvelous that any living man should show such eyes. They really seemed to shine like cinders of glowing red from out the marble face." Of course, he was writing about Irving in his role as an eternally damned ship captain in Vanderdecken, but Irving did like to play villains, and so Stoker took Irving's knack for villainous roles and combined it with the actual actor's appearance and mannerisms — Irving had beautiful courtly manners, thin lips, hollow cheeks, a pale face and a "shock of coal black hair." These characteristics became forever linked with Bram Stoker's vampire Count Dracula.

Dracula is written as a series of letters and journal entries, and Stoker adapted it for the dramatic reading into five acts, 47 scenes. It was quickly done, not intended to be a final play but to secure a copyright before he published the novel, so that once the book came out, no one could put on a play and charge a lot of money without Stoker getting any of it. The Lyceum was fully booked for the season, and even though he was the manager, he couldn't get an evening show, so he had the performance at 10:15 a.m.

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