Jun. 27, 2011

Here is the poem I meant to write
But didn't
Because you walked into my study
Without any clothes on.

I had just been thinking of how the Aegean sun
Must have lit up the faces of Troy's fallen heroes
When you walked into my study
Without any clothes on—

Walked in and stood there,
Holding a glass of sherry
Over your left breast,
Which looked soft and firm as Brie.

Your tone of voice this morning
Should have warned me
That you might walk into my study
Without any clothes on.

I should have lashed myself to my chair
And stoppered my ears with wax.
But I forgot.
And I'm glad I forgot

Because when you walked into my study
Without any clothes on
You sang sweetly, sang sweetly,
And I died nobly, like a man.

"Siren" by Robert Bernard Hass, from Counting Thunder. © David Robert Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1844, Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Latter-day Saints movement, was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. Born in Sharon, Vermont, in 1805, Smith reported he had been visited by an angel named Moroni in 1823. Moroni directed him to a buried cache of gold plates on which were written the history of the Israelites. He retrieved these and translated them with the help of two seer stones that were with them, and so wrote the Book of Mormon, on which he based a new sect of Christianity. He and his followers moved west in 1831, headed to Missouri to found a "New Zion"; on the way, they passed through Kirtland, Ohio, where they doubled the size of their church after converting about a hundred people. Smith declared Kirtland the "eastern boundary of New Jerusalem," calling all the Saints to meet him there.

Smith and his followers stayed in Kirtland for eight years; during this time he scouted Missouri for a site for New Zion, which he believed he found in Jackson County. The locals weren't having any of it, though, and they grew resentful, eventually forming mobs and attacking the Mormon settlements. Smith and his followers were forcibly expelled from Jackson County in 1833. They set their sights on Far West, Missouri, in 1838, but relations with the non-Mormons in the community grew increasingly contentious and resulted in the Mormon War of 1838. Smith was imprisoned and nearly executed for treason, but he escaped by bribing the sheriff, and the group moved on to Illinois in 1839, settling in the town of Commerce, which they renamed Nauvoo.

Smith and the Mormons presented themselves as refugees and oppressed minorities to their new neighbors in Illinois, but eventually they ran into trouble, and public opinion had turned against them by 1842. In 1843, Smith petitioned Congress to name Nauvoo an independent territory, and also announced himself as a third-party candidate for president of the United States. When he ordered the destruction of the facilities of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that had accused him of practicing polygamy and trying to get himself anointed as king of a theocracy, things got heated. He declared martial law, and the governor called for a trial. Smith was arrested and jailed in Carthage, Illinois. Smith reportedly said: "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer's morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me — he was murdered in cold blood." Two hundred men, their faces painted black with gunpowder, broke into the jail and shot Smith and his brother Hyrum to death.

It's the birthday of Helen Keller (1880) (books by this author), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama. When she was 19 months old, she came down with an illness — possibly scarlet fever — that left her blind and deaf. Alexander Graham Bell examined her when she was six years old and sent Anne Sullivan, a 20-year-old teacher at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, to help her. Sullivan stayed with Keller until she (Sullivan) died in 1936.

Keller moved to New York when she was 13 and attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. She was admitted to Radcliffe in 1899. She published her first of 14 books, The Story of My Life, in 1902. She loved being on stage; she starred in a silent film called Deliverance (1919) about her life, and she also went on vaudeville tours for several years, which she enjoyed a great deal. Not so Anne Sullivan, however, and Keller retired from the stage when her teacher no longer felt up to accompanying her.

Though history tends to portray her simply as an inspirational figure struggling with and overcoming the adversity of her handicaps, she tended to place her battles firmly in the political arena. In 1909, she joined the United States Socialist Party, and she supported Eugene V. Debs in his presidential campaigns. She joined the radical Industrial Workers of the World in 1912, visiting workers in appalling conditions. "I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums," she said. "If I could not see it, I could smell it." She also campaigned for women's suffrage. She protested against World War I and was one of the first members of the American Civil Liberties Union.

It's the birthday of American poet Frank O'Hara (books by this author), born Francis Russell O'Hara in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1926, or rather, it's the day that Frank O'Hara celebrated his birthday. He was actually born in March, but his parents lied to him and said he was born three months later, to keep him from finding out he was conceived before they were married.

He was interested in the visual as well as the literary arts, and got a job at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951, first at the front desk, where he would write poems in between selling postcards and tickets, and later as a curator. He worked there until his death. He also served as editor for Art News magazine from 1953 to 1955, and often contributed art criticism to the magazine. He drew poetic inspiration from the paintings by his friends Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and Jackson Pollock, as well as other nonliterary sources like free-form jazz. He described his work as "I do this I do that" poetry because he felt it read like a diary.

He was killed in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island, New York, when he was 40 years old.

It's the birthday of poet Lucille Clifton (1936) (books by this author), born Thelma Lucille Sayles in Depew, New York. Her family descended from slaves; her father was a steelworker and her mother worked in a laundry. Her mother, though uneducated, was also a poet. She was once offered the chance to publish her poems, but her husband refused to let her. Clifton wrote about this in her poem "fury":
for mama

remember this.
she is standing by
the furnace.
the coals
glisten like rubies.
her hand is crying.
her hand is clutching
a sheaf of papers.
she gives them up.
they burn
jewels into jewels.
her eyes are animals.
each hank of her hair
is a serpent's obedient
she will never recover.
remember. there is nothing
you will not bear
for this woman's sake.

She went to college at Howard and then Fredonia State Teacher's College, from which she graduated in 1955. She married Fred James Clifton, a teacher of philosophy and African-American studies, three years later. Her six young children inspired her first volume of poetry, Good Times (1969); the poems also depict urban African-American life. Her second book, Good News About the Earth: New Poems (1972), was a response to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, and her third, An Ordinary Woman (1974), turned inward to consider her dual role as poet and woman. She also wrote several children's books aimed at raising awareness of black history and culture. She told the Antioch Review, "I would like to be seen as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. My inclination is to try to help."

the mississippi river empties into the gulf
and the gulf enters the sea and so forth,
none of them emptying anything,
all of them carrying yesterday
forever on their white tipped backs,
all of them dragging forward tomorrow.
it is the great circulation
of the earth's body, like the blood
of the gods, this river in which the past
is always flowing. every water
is the same water coming round.
everyday someone is standing on the edge
of this river, staring into time,
whispering mistakenly:
only here. only now.

homage to my hips

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved, 
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

On this day in 1950, the United Nations, led by the United States, entered the Korean War on behalf of South Korea. From the minutes of a meeting that President Truman held two days earlier: "General Bradley said that we must draw the line [against Communist expansion] somewhere. The President stated he agreed on that. General Bradley said that Russia is not yet ready for war. The Korean situation offered as good an occasion for action in drawing the line as anywhere else." The war lasted three years and cost more than 2.5 million lives, but coming as it did between World War II and the contentious Vietnam War, it's often referred to as America's "forgotten war." It inspired several movies, but due to the complexity of the conflict, these tended to focus on very small military groups and ignore the bigger picture; its most famous pop cultural portrayal came in 1970, with the film version of Richard Hooker's 1968 novel MASH, and the even more successful TV series that the film spawned. While the book was a fairly accurate depiction of a Korean veteran's experiences during the war, the movie and TV series served as "safe" vehicles to explore the powder keg that was the Vietnam War.

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