Jun. 17, 2011


by Bruce Dethlefsen

what would I write
if I had only
four or five lines worth
of ink or time left?

how we children were put down
around eight o-clock in the bedroom nearby
with a crack of light from the open door
so the grownups could smoke play cards and talk

how I walked my sweetheart home
from eighth grade on that orange afternoon
carried her books from school
and she said the word marriage

how perfect the rainbow of the ball
my triple during
the all-star game
with my father there

how I heard the first cries of my baby
little bundle wrapped
in that thin pale yellow flannel blanket
in my arms against my chest

what would I write?
would I drop an anonymous note to jesus?

would I beg you
to remember to keep
this untitled green and blue
world of ours?

really what would I write
if I had only
four or five lines worth
of ink or time left?

"Untitled" by Bruce Dethlefsen, from Breather. © Fireweed Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

On this day in 1631, Mumtaz Mahal died; her husband, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, was so grieved by her death that he spent the next 22 years building her mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, in Agra. The two had married in 1612, and she was his favorite of his three wives; her name means "Chosen One of the Palace." She died giving birth to their 14th child.

More than 20,000 workers from India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Europe were employed in building the mausoleum and its surrounding complex. The outlying buildings, including the mosque, are made of red sandstone; the tomb, built of white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones, is the most recognizable feature, and it's suffered greatly in recent years from the pollution of nearby foundries and automobile traffic.

Shah Jahan described the monument thus:

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory.

It's the birthday of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882), born in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg. He grew up in a musical and literary household: His father was one of Russia's leading operatic basses. While Stravinsky was in law school, he started noodling around with composition, and showed some of his work to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, whose son was a fellow law student. Rimsky-Korsakov was impressed enough to take Stravinsky on as a private pupil. Stravinsky is best known for his early work, including The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913); the latter was a highly experimental piece that he produced with Ballets Russes, with Nijinsky dancing the lead, and it caused riots at its premiere. Stravinsky's style evolved rapidly from the "barbarism" of his early groundbreaking works to a more austere, but no less revolutionary, aesthetic. He worked with Russian folk motifs until World War I, and then turned to the European canon of classical music to inspire his unconventional compositions. His only full-length opera, The Rake's Progress (1951), was set to a libretto by W.H. Auden and is considered a classic of the 20th century. In Boston in 1944, he conducted his own arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner; the audience was thrown off by its unconventional harmonies, and a police commissioner paid him a visit, warning him that he could be subject to a $100 fine for tampering with national property, but there's no truth to the myth that he was arrested.

He moved to Switzerland in 1910, France in 1920, Hollywood in 1939, and New York City in 1969, at the age of 86. He considered Venice his spiritual home, and that's where he is buried. He said, "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all."

On this day in 1885, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor. Formally known as "Liberty Enlightening the World," she was a gift from France, and was funded by the French people. Sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi first had the idea for a monument to commemorate the friendship between the United States and France in 1865, but he didn't begin actual construction until the early 1870s; he chose Bedloe's Island — now called Liberty Island — because the statue could welcome the boats full of immigrants, who would pass by the statue on the way to Ellis Island. He was delighted to learn that the island was the property of the United States government, which meant all the states — not just New York — could claim equal ownership in the statue.

Lady Liberty is made of sheets of copper over a framework of steel supports; the framework was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame. She was constructed in France and then was disassembled to make her journey to New York, where she was reassembled to her full height of 151 feet, 1 inch. Mounted on her pedestal, she stands 305 feet tall. Her torch was wired for electrical power in 1916. The seven rays of her crown represent the seven seas and the seven continents; the broken shackles at her feet evoke freedom from slavery and oppression; and the tablet in her left hand represents the law. Bartholdi completed her right arm and torch, as well as her head, before the rest of the statue was designed, and the arm went on display in 1876 as part of the United States Centennial celebrations. Liberty's face was modeled after Bartholdi's mother.

Emma Lazarus's oft-quoted sonnet, "The New Colossus" (1883), which was written to raise money for construction of the statue's pedestal, is engraved on a brass plaque inside it:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

It's the birthday of novelist and journalist John Hersey (books by this author), born in Tianjin, China, to missionary parents in 1914. He went to Yale and then to Cambridge, and he decided he wanted to become a journalist. On his return to the States in 1937, he worked for a while as Sinclair Lewis's private secretary, driver, and personal assistant; later that year he convinced Time to hire him by sending them an essay in which he laid out everything that was wrong with the magazine.

He wrote several novels, and was dubbed "a new Hemingway" by The New York Times; he won the Pulitzer in 1945 for A Bell for Adano. He's also one of the pioneers of what would come to be called New Journalism, relying on extensive interviews and research and then using literary techniques to craft a novelistic — but factual — narrative. He covered the European theater during World War II for Time and Life, and after the war he went to Japan at the behest of The New Yorker to write about the country's reconstruction. His 31,000-word article "Hiroshima," which followed the stories of six individuals who survived the atomic blast, took up the entirety of the magazine's August 31, 1946 issue. An editorial note preceded the article: "TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors." The magazine sold out within hours, and founder Harold Ross said, "I don't think I've ever got as much satisfaction out of anything else in my life." Albert Einstein ordered a thousand copies to hand out, and many newspapers serialized it. Hersey's only condition was that they make a donation to the American Red Cross rather than pay him. The piece also inspired later writers like Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and John McPhee.

An excerpt from "Hiroshima":

"Dr. Sasaki had not looked outside the hospital all day; the scene inside was so terrible and so compelling that it had not occurred to him to ask any questions about what had happened beyond the windows and doors. Ceilings and partitions had fallen; plaster, dust, blood, and vomit were everywhere. Patients were dying by the hundreds, but there was nobody to carry away the corpses. Some of the hospital staff distributed biscuits and rice balls, but the charnel-house smell was so strong that few were hungry. By three o'clock the next morning, after nineteen straight hours of his gruesome work, Dr. Sasaki was incapable of dressing another wound. He and some other survivors of the hospital staff got straw mats and went outdoors — thousands of patients and hundreds of dead were in the yard and on the driveway — and hurried around the hospital and lay down in hiding to snatch some sleep. But within an hour wounded people had found them; a complaining circle formed around them: 'Doctor! Help us! How can you sleep?' Dr. Sasaki got up again and went back to work. Early in the day, he thought for the first time of his mother, at their country home in Mukaihara, thirty miles from town. He usually went home every night. He was afraid she would think he was dead."

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