Aug. 2, 2011


by Fleur Adcock

Is it the long dry grass that is so erotic,
waving about us with hair-fine fronds of straw,
with feathery flourishes of seed, inviting us
to cling together, fall, roll into it
blind and gasping, smothered by stalks and hair,
pollen and each other's tongues on our hot faces?
Then imagine if the summer rain were to come,
heavy drops hissing through the warm air,
a sluice on our wet bodies, plastering us
with strands of delicious grass; a hum in our ears.

We walk a yard apart, talking
of literature and of botany.
We have known each other, remotely, for nineteen years.

"Prelude" by Fleur Adcock, from Poems 1960-2000. © Bloodaxe Books, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by 56 delegates of the Second Continental Congress, although it is popularly believed to have been signed a month earlier on the fourth of July. Since then, the wording of the Declaration, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," has often been invoked to protect the rights of marginalized groups and individuals, and was an inspiration for Abraham Lincoln, who made the Declaration the foundation of his political philosophy and used it as a call to end slavery in America.

Although some signers of the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, wrote in the years after the signing that it had taken place in July, by the 1790s political historians began to doubt this date. For one thing, a number of the signers had not actually been present in Philadelphia earlier in the summer of '76, including eight delegates who hadn't even been elected to the Continental Congress until after they'd supposedly signed the Declaration.

The issue was a matter of controversy until 1821, when the four volumes of the Secret journals of the acts and proceedings of Congress were finally made public. The journals contain no entry whatsoever for the fourth of July. However, on the 19th of that month, the Secret journals record the Congress's decision that "The declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment," meaning it would be drawn up as a formal legal document, "and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." Fourteen days later, as the entry for August 2nd, 1776 reads, "The Declaration of Independence being engrossed, and compared at the table was signed by the members."

Physicists began speculating in the late 19th century that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us, mirror-image anti-atoms and perhaps even whole anti-solar systems where matter and antimatter might meet and annihilate one another. But on this day in 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea.

Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber, a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation, like the vapor trails of miniscule airplanes, each type of particle forming a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious pattern — a trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve — an electron's mirror image and evidence of an anti-electron. Anderson named the antimatter particle the positron and won a Nobel Prize for his discovery four years later.

Around 1940, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took up the newly discovered particle, using it as the basis for his fictional "positronic brain," a structure made of platinum and iridium and his means for imparting humanlike consciousness to the robots in his story collection I, Robot.

The fictional uses of antimatter and the positronic brain have since spread throughout literature and popular entertainment, from the writing of Robert Heinlein to the classic British television series Doctor Who to propulsion systems and the sentient android, Data, in the American science fiction series Star Trek — even to Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, the sequel to his wildly popular DaVinci Code, in which the Illuminati intend to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

Today is the birthday of the American novelist, essayist, and activist James Baldwin (books by this author), author of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York, in 1924, the oldest of nine children in a family that was dominated by his strict, religious stepfather, a Pentecostal minister with whom James had a difficult relationship and who brought his son into the ministry when he was just 14. Those were the early days of the Harlem Renaissance, but still, as Baldwin recalled in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, "Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. ... My father didn't think it was possible — he thought I'd get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man's definitions, which was quite right." So the ministry it was, at least for three years, by which point Baldwin felt his faith had gone.

When his stepfather died in 1943, James left home, a period he writes about in the titular essay of Notes of a Native Son. He then immersed himself in the international, artistic atmosphere of Greenwich Village, making his living as a dishwasher, busboy, factory worker or waiter, working multiple jobs at once and writing in the moments around them.

An important moment for Baldwin came when he and his friend, the modernist painter Beauford Delaney, were standing on a street corner in the Village, waiting for the light to change. Baldwin recounts in The Paris Review that Beauford "pointed down and said, 'Look.' I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, 'Look again,' which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in that puddle." In that moment, Baldwin felt he'd been taught how to see, and how to trust what he saw, felt that from that moment on he could see the world differently than he had before.

When he was 24 and beginning to recognize his own homosexuality, Baldwin expatriated himself to him France with $40 and not knowing a single word of French. He hoped to find himself in a larger context, somewhere he could see himself as more than "merely a Negro; or, merely a Negro writer," a move that would also allow him to escape American prejudices toward blacks and homosexuals. In Paris, he found the distance he needed to write about his personal experiences and the struggles of black Americans from the point of view of not "merely a Negro," or a victim, but as a man, thus resisting the easy categorization of his work as that of a "black writer."

In the '60s, Baldwin returned to the United States to take part in the civil rights movement. He became friends with Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, and because he didn't see himself as a public speaker, used his ability to craft stories and essays to write about black identity and race in The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street. One by one, Baldwin's outspoken friends were killed and, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Baldwin was sick at heart. Unable to escape the pain of his loss, he fled again to Europe, which remained his home until his death in 1987. Despite his grief and the anger of the times, despite the harsh tone of his book If Beale Street Could Talk, which some reviewers criticized for sounding bitter, Baldwin always remained an advocate for universal love and brotherhood.

James Baldwin's influence on other American artists, whether of spirit or love or style, is undeniable. He and the poet Langston Hughes were responsible for getting the singer Nina Simone involved in the civil rights movement. Maya Angelou, remembering Baldwin in The New York Times after his death, said that he "set the stage" for her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He told Angelou she was "intelligent and very brave," introduced her to his family as one of their own, saying she was his mother's newest daughter, and was, in Angelou's words, "my friend and brother."

Toni Morrison, in her goodbye and thank you in The New York Times, wrote that James Baldwin gave her three gifts: "a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect" that it seemed her own; "the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges"; and his tenderness and vulnerability and a love that made one want to be worthy, generous, and strong.

Today is the birthday of Chinese poet Bei Dao (books by this author) born Zhao Zhenkai in Beijing in 1949. Bei Dao's family was traditional and middle class, his father a professional administrator and his mother a doctor. And when Mao's Cultural Revolution came in 1966, Bei Dao was initially an enthusiastic supporter and joined the Red Guard movement. But the boy soon become disillusioned, certain that the Mao revolution would only end in new forms of tyranny, and so was sent to the countryside for "re-education" through labor, the standard punishment for counter-revolutionaries, and lived a relatively isolated life that only added to his melancholy.

Bei Dao longed for new ways to express himself, some artistic manner that was unrestricted by the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, and he began experimenting with lyrical writing, free verse, oblique images and cryptic phrases — an extreme break from officially sanctioned literature. It was then, in the early 1970s, that he took the pseudonym by which he is known — Bei Dao, or "north island" — to express both his northern birth and solitary nature.

Bei Dao and a group of other writers following this new lyric style became known as the "Misty School," writing the "poetry of shadows," and taking up the voice of all who shared in their spiritual exile. His work began to earn recognition with pro-democracy protesters, and he took part in the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations, during which his poem "The Answer" became something of an anthem for the dissidents, who chanted its lines as they marched:
      I don't believe the sky is blue;
      I don't believe in thunder's echoes;
      I don't believe that dreams are false;
      I don't believe that death has no revenge.

Bei Dao wrote his first novella, Waves, and then in 1978 helped found China's first unofficial literary magazine, Jintian, and managed to keep it running for two years before the government shut it down. He continued to write poetry that expressed the intimacies of love and friendship in a society where trusting another could be a matter of life or death, and won the Chinese National Award for poetry despite official disapproval of his progressive actions.

In 1988, Bei Dao wrote a petition and collected signatures, calling for the release of Chinese political prisoners and drawing the wrath of the authorities. The petition became the prelude to a large-scale human rights campaign that would come to a head in the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June of 1989. Although he was abroad during the demonstrations, protesters chanted Bei Dao's poetry while congregating in the square, and he was forced to remain abroad, knowing he'd be arrested if he returned.

Now an exile, Bei Dao taught throughout Europe and the United States, relaunched the magazine Jinchian in Stockholm in 1990, was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and has been on the shortlist of candidates for the Nobel Prize in literature numerous times in recent years. Finally, in 2006, Bei Dao was allowed to return to China where he currently lives and teaches.

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




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