Jul. 27, 2011


by Carl Dennis

Don't be ashamed that your parents
Didn't happen to meet at an art exhibit
Or at a protest against a foreign policy
Based on fear of negotiation,
But in an aisle of a discount drugstore,
Near the antihistamine section,
Seeking relief from the common cold.
You ought to be proud that even there,
Amid coughs and sneezes,
They were able to peer beneath
The veil of pointless happenstance.
Here is someone, each thought,
Able to laugh at the indignities
That flesh is heir to. Here
Is a person one might care about.
Not love at first sight, but the will
To be ready to endorse the feeling
Should it arise. Had they waited
For settings more promising,
You wouldn't be here,
Wishing things were different.
Why not delight at how young they were
When they made the most of their chances,
How young still, a little later,
When they bought a double plot
At the cemetery. Look at you,
Twice as old now as they were
When they made arrangements,
And still you're thinking of moving on,
Of finding a town with a climate
Friendlier to your many talents.
Don't be ashamed of the homely thought
That whatever you might do elsewhere,
In the time remaining, you might do here
If you can resolve, at last, to pay attention.

"Drugstore" by Carl Dennis, from Callings. © Penguin Poets, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The United States Department of Foreign Affairs was created on this date in 1789. Congress had approved its establishment about a week before, and President George Washington signed it into law on this date, making it the first federal agency created under the new Constitution. The Department of Foreign Affairs had evolved from the previous Committee of Secret Correspondence, which was led by Benjamin Franklin. The site of the nation's capital changed several times prior to 1800, and at this time, Congress was carrying out its business in New York City Hall. The Department of Foreign Affairs' office was located at Fraunces Tavern, on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. The Treasury and War departments were housed there as well.

The Secretary of Foreign Affairs was given "the custody and charge of all records, books, and papers" of the government. Two months later, in September 1789, the department was assigned domestic, as well as foreign, duties and was renamed the State Department. President Washington then named Thomas Jefferson the first secretary of state; Jefferson reluctantly returned from Paris in January 1790 and assumed the duties of his new office in March. By then, the department had moved to Philadelphia, near Congress Hall, unless there was a yellow fever epidemic, in which case they operated out of Trenton, New Jersey.

It's the birthday of French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824) (books by this author). He was born in Paris, the illegitimate son and namesake of Alexandre Dumas, père, a writer of swashbuckling historical novels. The son was a writer in his own right; however, his style diverged wildly from his father's. He was one of the most successful playwrights of his day, and the father of the "problem play," which depicts a contemporary moral or social problem and offers suggestions for a remedy. His first big success came with his second novel, called Camille (1848). It's the story of a repentant courtesan and her doomed love affair, and it's also the work he's best remembered for today. Dumas turned it into a play in 1852. It was a hit, and it inspired Verdi's opera La Traviata (1853) in turn. The book was based on Dumas' own love affair with a courtesan named Marie Duplessis.

Most of Dumas fils' work took on a moralistic tone. As the product of an affair himself, he sympathized with his mother, a dressmaker, and had little tolerance for his father's womanizing. Even though his father formally recognized him, giving him his name and making sure he had the best education, he never got over the feeling of shame he felt at being illegitimate, and many of his plays involved questions of marriage and family.

The Atlantic Cable was completed on this day in 1866, making telegraphic communication possible between Europe and North America. The cable ran from Valentia Harbor, Ireland, to the little fishing village of Heart's Content, Newfoundland: a distance of nearly 1,700 nautical miles. The first message was "A treaty of peace has been signed between Austria and Russia." Queen Victoria then cabled, "The Queen congratulates the President on the successful completion of an undertaking which she hopes may serve as an additional bond of Union between the United States and England."

It was the third attempt to lay transatlantic cable between the two continents. Before, they had tried bringing cable on ships from Britain and America, meeting in the middle of the ocean and splicing the ends together. The cable kept snapping, and when they eventually did make a connection, the engineer used voltage that was too high, and the cable burned out. The third time was the charm, however, and this cable was laid with no trouble at all. The Great Eastern left Ireland with enough cable aboard to run the full distance; they spooled out about 120 miles a day. The mission completed, the Great Eastern turned around and steamed east to the point where the previous cable had snapped. They managed to retrieve the broken end and splice it successfully; they completed the second cable connection between the continents on September 8.

It still took about 24 hours to get a message from London to New York, due to a gap between Newfoundland and the mainland, but people didn't complain. Prior to the laying of the cable, it had taken messages a week or more to cross the Atlantic. The telegraph opened for commercial use almost immediately but it was pricey: a dollar a letter, payable in gold.

It's the birthday of British writer Robert Rankin (books by this author), born in Parsons Green, London, in 1949. The British newspaper The Midweek called him "a sort of drinking man's H.G. Wells." His books are a hodgepodge of science fiction, steampunk, urban legends, and running gags, with punning titles like East of Ealing (1984), The Brentford Chainstore Massacre (1997), Web Site Story (2001), Fandom of the Operator (2001), and The Toyminator (2006). The biography printed in his books is largely fictional, but he did grow up in the London suburb of Brentford, he is obsessed with Brussels sprouts, and he did study at Ealing School of Art, along with Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and illustrator Alan Lee. He says he had 41 jobs before becoming a writer, and he was sacked from 39 of them. He lives in a Victorian-themed home in Brighton with his wife.

He said, "The finest philosophy for life I ever read was printed on the back of a box of matches, it was 'Keep dry and away from children.' Naturally I jest. Or do I?"

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Indian novelist and short-story writer Bharati Mukherjee (books by this author), born in Calcutta (1940). She went to a school run by Protestant missionaries, and she started writing from an early age, continuing as she moved to London and then back to Calcutta.

She studied English literature, got a master's, and then her father agreed to let her go to school in America for a couple of years while he looked for a suitable Bengali husband for her back in Calcutta. He had an American scholar over to dinner, and said that his daughter wanted to go to America and study creative writing, so where should he send her? The scholar recommended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, so Mukherjee's father wrote to the poet Paul Engle, who directed the program for many years, and soon she was off to Iowa. In the workshop, Mukherjee met another writer, Clark Blaise, and after dating for two weeks they got married in September of 1963, during a lunch break, in a lawyer's office over a coffee shop. Her parents weren't too happy, but within the year the couple had a son, and as she said, "that made up for everything." Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise are still married, and they have written several books together. She has written many books on her own, as well, including The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), Jasmine (1989), and the novels Desirable Daughters (2002) and its sequel, The Tree Bride (2004). Mukherjee and Blaise are currently on their first joint book tour in 48 years of marriage: he for his story collection The Meagre Tarmac (2011), and she for her new novel, Miss New India (2011).

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




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