Aug. 21, 2010


by X. J. Kennedy

Hungry at dawn, anointing slabs of bread
With oily peanut butter, I remember
The snare I'd laid. Perhaps a mouse and I
Share the same menu?

I kneel and from beneath the sink retrieve
The spring trap, in its clasp
The forehead of a victim who'd believed
Its prize within his grasp.

Stiff frozen tail, expression of chagrin—
Into the trash compactor. Dust to dust.
It owes me nothing more, this guillotine
Sprung many times, blood-stained, springs red with rust.

Thoughtful, I chew a half-stale apple tart.
More tempting baits I've risked my neck for, but
When will that ring of fat around my heart
Snap shut?

"Brotherhood" by X.J. Kennedy, from In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007. © The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet X.J. Kennedy, (books by this author) born Joseph Kennedy in Dover, New Jersey (1929).

He joined the Navy, and for four years he served as a journalist, which mostly meant that he hung out on destroyers and took photos and wrote up profiles of sailors to publish in their hometown newspapers. He had a lot of extra time and not much to do on the boat, so he started writing poetry. While he was still in the Navy, he sent two poems to The New Yorker, and they published them. He decided that he was tired of people making jokes that he was Joseph Kennedy, the Boston tycoon and ambassador, so he chose the initial "X" randomly and published his poems as X.J. Kennedy, which he has done ever since.

He went to Paris to study, then to Michigan, where he started work on a Ph.D., but after six years he still hadn't finished it and he gave up. But he met his wife there, also a poet, and together they edited a poetry journal, Counter/Measures.

He published more poetry, writing rhymed, structured verse. But it wasn't very popular, and he wasn't sure if he should keep writing. Then he got a letter from a children's poet who had read his first book and really liked two poems in there that would be good for kids. She told him that he should write more for children, and gave him the name of an editor and publisher to work with. And so in 1975, he published One Winter's Night and it got great reviews and he's been writing for children ever since, as well as his writing for adults and textbooks for college students.

He said, "Critics, the more kindly ones, have called my work 'witty,' a dangerous label to wear, since to many it suggests 'trivial' and 'superficially felt.' I would wish to be seriously funny, and cannot understand the supposed difference between certain poems called light verse and others ranked as poetry."

In "Mixed-up School" he wrote:
We have a crazy mixed-up school.
Our teacher Mrs. Cheetah
Makes us talk backwards. Nicer cat
You wouldn't want to meet a.

It was on this day in 1888 that William Seward Burroughs received a patent for an adding machine.

Some version of a calculator had been in existence for hundreds of years, but Burroughs designed a machine that was actually accurate. It was 11 by 15 inches and nine inches high, had 81 keys, arranged in nine rows of nine keys each.

It was on this day in 1831 that Nat Turner led a group of slaves in a revolt in Southampton County in southeastern Virginia. It only lasted two days, but in that amount of time Turner and at least 40 followers killed approximately 60 white people by going between farmhouses and murdering everyone they found, including children. On August 22, a group of militia confronted Turner's group, which dispersed, although Turner himself was not caught until October 30. He was hanged and skinned. His rebellion set off a fierce backlash of violence against African-Americans, slave and free.

Before he died, a white lawyer talked to him and wrote down his life story, changed and annotated it as he saw fit, and then published it as The Confessions of Nat Turner. Turner described his religious experiences — he saw visions in which the Spirit communicated with him, and he saw himself as a servant of God carrying out his plan.

In 1967, William Styron published a novel, also called The Confessions of Nat Turner.

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