Sep. 16, 2011

The Glass and the Bowl

by Louise Erdrich

The father pours the milk from his glass
into the cup of the child,
and as the child drinks
the whiteness, opening
her throat to the good taste
eagerly, the father is filled.
He closes the refrigerator
on its light, he walks out
under the bowl of frozen darkness
and nothing seems withheld from him.
Overhead, the burst ropes of stars,
the buckets of craters,
the chaos of heaven, absence
of refuge in the design.
Yet down here, his daughter
in her quilts, under patterns
of diamonds and novas,
full of rich milk,

"The Glass and the Bowl" by Louise Erdrich, from Baptism of Desire. © Harper Perennial, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of England's King Henry V (c. 1386). He was born in Monmouth, Wales, and he began his military career at a young age. At 14, he fought against the Welsh forces of Owain Glyndwr; at 16, he commanded the English forces at the battle of Shrewsbury. His greatest victory was during the Hundred Years' War with France, at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, two years after he ascended to the throne. The French lands he won as a result of that battle made England one of the strongest kingdoms in Europe. France's King Charles VI acknowledged him as heir to the French throne through the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, and soon after, Henry married the king's daughter, Catherine of Valois. Their only child, a son, was born late in 1421. Henry V promoted the use of English as the language of record, instead of Norman French, and he was the first king to use English exclusively in his personal correspondence. He contracted dysentery or typhus on one of his numerous military campaigns. He died in 1422, after reigning only nine years.

The medieval chronicler Rafael Holinshed summed up his reign thus: "This Henry was a king, of life without spot, a prince whom all men loved, and of none disdained, a captain against whom fortune never frowned, nor mischance once spurned ... he left no offence unpunished, nor friendship unrewarded; a terror to rebels, and suppressor of sedition, his virtues notable, his qualities most praiseworthy." The stories of his dissolute youth followed by cold, heartless pragmatism on reaching the throne, as portrayed by Shakespeare, were not entirely unearned, however. Though he wasn't quite the party animal that he's depicted as in Henry IV, he did have a lot of restless energy, which the king probably diverted into his early military campaigns. He also had a friend — Sir John Oldcastle — who inspired the character of Falstaff in Shakespeare's plays. In the play, Falstaff has no place in the court of the newly crowned king and is ruthlessly cast off. In reality, Henry ordered his old friend's execution in 1414 because of Oldcastle's association with the Lollards, a group agitating for reform of the church.

There's also no evidence to suggest that Henry gave a rousing pre-battle speech of the kind that Shakespeare gave us, but it remains inextricably linked to the man.
"And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered —
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

On this date in 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America. The 90-foot ship was chartered by a group of merchants known as "the London Adventurers," and it carried 102 settlers — about half of them religious separatists — to the New World. There were supposed to have been two ships to carry the settlers, but the Mayflower's sister ship, the Speedwell, proved to be unseaworthy, and eventually the Mayflower had to carry on without her, taking on some of her passengers. They were bound for a tract of land set aside for them in the colony of Virginia, which at that time was much larger than our current state; the Mayflower's tract was along the Hudson River in what is now New York. Because their departure was delayed, they hit bad weather and were blown off course, making landfall on Cape Cod instead. Only about half of the original passengers survived the first winter, but none of them took the opportunity to return to England when the Mayflower departed in the spring.

Anne Bradstreet (books by this author), America's first published poet, died on this day in 1672. She was born Anne Dudley, probably about 1612, in Northampton, England. She married Simon Bradstreet when she was about 16 and departed England with him two years later, in 1630, as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They eventually settled in Andover and raised eight children.

Somehow between the child-rearing, the duties of the church, and the rigors of life in the new colony, Anne found time to write poetry. She usually did it to distract her during the long periods of Simon's absence on political errands; he was the Chief Administrator of the Colony and, later, its last governor. She wrote for her family and close friends, not for fame and glory, since those pursuits were unsuitable for a Puritan woman. Her brother-in-law took the poems to England without her knowledge, and they were published there as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts (1650). He hastens to add on the title page that Anne didn't shirk her wifely duties in the writing of the verses: "These poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from sleep and other refreshments." The collection didn't contain her best work — many of these early poems imitated other, better-known poets — but it was the first published work by a woman in America, and it was the only volume of her work published in her lifetime.

Bradstreet usually took for her subjects her devotion to her husband, her children, and God. Her later poems were shorter, and more original, than her earlier ones. She focused more on the reality of her daily life and less on conveying a set of virtues, and she also wrote touchingly of her fear of childbirth, the loss of her home to fire, and the death of her granddaughter. Though she outwardly seemed to accept the subordinate role of women in 17th-century Puritan society, she allowed an undercurrent of discontent and conflict to enter her verses. She valued knowledge and intellect in a time when these were considered the province of men. She died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1672.

Today is the birthday of H.A. Rey (1898) (books by this author). He was born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany. He and his wife, Margret, both German Jews, were living in Paris in 1939 when World War II began. They were at work on a new book featuring the most endearing of Hans' animal drawings, a mischievous monkey named Fifi. "It seems ridiculous to be thinking about children's books," Rey wrote to a friend. "[But] life goes on, the editors edit, the artists draw, even during wartime." By June 1940, it became apparent that Paris was in imminent danger from the Nazis, so Hans built two bicycles out of spare parts, and the Reys gathered their most precious and portable belongings, including the collection of monkey sketches for the book manuscript. They left Paris two days before the Nazis invaded, and rode 75 miles in three days. By bicycle, train, and boat, they fled on a four-month journey that took them to Lisbon, then Rio de Janeiro, and finally New York. The drawings of the little monkey were proof of the Reys' occupation and helped them get visas. The first book, Curious George, as the monkey was now called, was published in the United States in 1941. (In Britain, the monkey was called Zozo, to avoid offending King George VI.)

Rey was also an astronomy enthusiast, and in addition to the beloved Curious George books, he wrote The Stars: A New Way to See Them in 1952. The book includes constellation diagrams with cartoon outlines to make them easier to remember and recognize. His new diagrams were widely adopted by other astronomical texts, and the book is regularly reissued as we learn more accurate information about our galaxy.

Today is the birthday of Canadian author Nancy Huston (1953) (books by this author), born in Calgary, Alberta. She grew up in Germany, and then America, where she went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She applied for a yearlong study-abroad program in Paris during her junior year. She never left France after that. She went on to graduate school and studied linguistics and theory under the tutelage of literary critic and philosopher Roland Barthes. She writes with equal comfort in both French and English. She wrote her first novel, The Goldberg Variations, in 1981, after the birth of her first child; she wrote the book in French, and later translated it to English in 1996, but sometimes she writes in English and later translates her work to French.

On this date in 1966, the Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York City. It replaced the old building at 39th and Broadway. The new building is the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and it seats 3,800 people. An additional 195 operagoers may stand, if they're willing. Marc Chagall painted two 30-by-36-foot murals for the lobby, which also boasts 11 crystal chandeliers in the shape of starbursts. There are 21 matching chandeliers in the auditorium; they retract up to the ceiling during performances.

The official opening of the new opera house also marked the debut of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. Opening night of the opera was, by most accounts, a giant fiasco. The production was overwrought and the stage was so overloaded with props and people that the brand-new turntable was broken. Star Leontyne Price was trapped inside a pyramid at one point. But the opera house survived its inauspicious beginnings. When the opera season is over, it also houses the American Ballet Theatre.

Today is the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Justin Haythe (1973) (books by this author). He was born in London. He wrote the original screenplay for the film The Clearing (2004), and wrote an adapted screenplay, Revolutionary Road (2008), which was based on the novel by Richard Yates. He's also written one novel, The Honeymoon, which was nominated for the Man Booker prize in 2004.

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