Apr. 20, 2011

End of Days

by Marge Piercy

Almost always with cats, the end
comes creeping over the two of you—
she stops eating, his back legs
no longer support him, she leans
to your hand and purrs but cannot
rise—sometimes a whimper of pain
although they are stoic. They see
death clearly though hooded eyes.

Then there is the long weepy
trip to the vet, the carrier no
longer necessary, the last time
in your lap. The injection is quick.
Simply they stop breathing
in your arms. You bring them
home to bury in the flower garden,
planting a bush over a deep grave.

That is how I would like to cease,
held in a lover's arms and quickly
fading to black like an old-fashioned
movie embrace. I hate the white
silent scream of hospitals, the whine
of pain like air-conditioning's hum.
I want to click the off switch.
And if I can no longer choose

I want someone who loves me
there, not a doctor with forty patients
and his morality to keep me sort
of, kind of alive or sort of undead.
Why are we more rational and kinder
to our pets than to ourselves or our
parents? Death is not the worst
thing; denying it can be.

"End of Days" by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980 - 2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1926, the phrase "grace under pressure" was used for the first time in print. Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) used the phrase in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author). The two met a year earlier in a Parisian bar called Dingo and began a tumultuous, alcohol- and envy-fueled friendship, which Hemingway wrote about in his memoir A Moveable Feast (published posthumously in 1964).

Hemingway was a prolific correspondent, and he probably wrote six to seven thousand letters in his lifetime, perhaps because he was an informal letter writer who believed letters should never be written for posterity. Write letters "for the day and the hour," said Hemingway in a May 1950 letter to English professor and author Arthur Mizener. "Posterity will always look after herself." In his letters, he regularly ignored apostrophes, rarely crossed a t or dotted an i. And while he frequently boasted that he was a better speller than Fitzgerald, he almost always misspelled certain words, including apologize (apoligize), responsibility (responsability), and volume (volumne). He would also drop pronouns and common articles (an and the) from his letters (and sometimes even from conversation). He might have been mimicking the language of cables and telegraphs, which he loved, but he also thought the shortened, abrupt style was manly and down-to-earth.

In this particular letter to Fitzgerald, Hemingway gossips, talks about what he's getting paid, offers facetious money advice, badmouths other writers, and asks Fitzgerald to read his new manuscript, The Sun Also Rises. He uses the phrase "grace under pressure" to describe what he means when he uses the word "guts":
"Was not referring to guts but to something else. Grace under pressure. Guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers."

It was on this day in 1939 that Billie Holiday recorded the song "Strange Fruit," which describes the lynching of a black man in the South. The song began as a poem written not by Holiday, but by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol (using the pseudonym Lewis Allan) who was deeply disturbed by a picture he saw of a lynching. Meeropol set the song to music with his wife, Laura, and performed it at venues in New York City. (Meeropol and his wife are also noteworthy for adopting the orphaned Rosenberg children, Robert and Michael, after their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for espionage.)

Holiday met Meeropol through a connection at a nightclub in Greenwich Village. She wanted to record the song, but her record label refused to produce something so graphic and she was forced to record it on an alternative jazz label.

Holiday's recording of "Strange Fruit" is unique in American music for its unflinching look at one of the darkest periods in national history.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

It's the birthday of one of Britain's most popular living novelists, Sebastian Faulks (books by this author), born in Newbury, England (1953). His first novel, A Trick of Light (1984), didn't catch on with readers, but his next novel, The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989), sold better. Eventually, his 1993 novel, Birdsong, flew off shelves and is still a favorite among contemporary readers.

To honor the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming (May 28, 1908), the man who created James Bond, Faulks was commissioned by the Fleming estate to write the next official Bond novel. He was surprised to be chosen, and since he hadn't read any of the books since he was a young boy, he agreed to the project only if he enjoyed them as much again as an adult.

"On rereading, I was surprised by how well the books stood up," Faulks said in a statement when his version, Devil May Care, was released. He credits three things with making the Bond novels so enduring: "the sense of jeopardy Fleming creates about his solitary hero, a certain playfulness in the narrative details, and a crisp, journalistic style that hasn't dated."

Devil May Care picks up right where Fleming left off — with Bond in Paris at the height of the Cold War, a beautiful woman at his side, and danger around every corner. It was published in 2008 and became the fastest-selling hardcover novel in the publisher's history.

It is the birthday of poet and satirist Pietro Aretino (books by this author), born in Arezzo, Italy (1492). He is considered the creator of modern literary pornography, but pornography didn't pay well in Renaissance Italy and he made his living as a writer-for-hire. Wealthy patrons paid him to use his razor sharp wit to sing their praises, defame their enemies, or both. Aretino so upset some people with his pen that he received several death threats and survived at least one attempted assassination.

Aretino was also a close friend of the Venetian artist Titian, and Titian painted Aretino six times — once as Pontius Pilate, once as a solider, and four times in separate portraits as himself. In turn, Aretino used his wit and charm to help guide Titian's career and build his reputation.

It is the birthday of Spanish painter Joan Miró, born Joan Miró i Ferrà, in Barcelona (1893). While he is considered a surrealist, he rejected identification with any one artistic movement. Before he went into exile during the Franco regime — Miró was Catalan and the Catalans were subject to special persecution by Franco — he traveled widely and visual references to Haitian voodoo and the Cuban Santería religion infuse his dreamlike art. He's best known for his paintings The Harlequin's Carnival (1924) and Dog Barking at the Moon (1926).

He said, "The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later."

He said, "For me an object is something living. This cigarette or this box of matches contains a secret life much more intense than that of certain human beings. "

On this day in 1841, fiction's first modern-day detective made an appearance in print. Brainy and eccentric, C. Auguste Dupin was the creation of Edgar Allan Poe (books by this author) in his short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." In "Rue Morgue," Dupin suffers a less-brainy sidekick, blundering policemen, and misleading clues — all plot devices that remain popular in detective stories to this day. The story is the first of a trilogy featuring Dupin that includes "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter." When Poe wrote "Rue Morgue," the word detective did not yet exist.

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




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