Dec. 3, 2011

Shrinking as they rise, the...

by Len Roberts

grow so much smaller late at night
when I walk softly out of the house,
trying not to wake anyone up,
sitting here on the blue porch
to see Cassiopeia the size of a book-
Draco the Dragon smaller than
    a milksnake,
realizing again I am shrinking,
the picture taken last month in which
    my son
rises above my head
so much like the one
taken of me and my father as we stood
    in front of St. Bernard's,
my graduation diploma in my folded hands,
his pockmarked face looking into my neck,
my padded shoulders level with his bloodshot
and I know the bells were ringing
and the people all around us were laughing and
    loudly talking,
that cars swished by in the afternoon sun
but I just looked down on my father's waved hair,
smelled the Schaefer's on his dark breath,
refusing to shake his hand which even now
holds itself out, twenty-three years after
    his death,
into this clear-night December Pennsylvania air.

"Shrinking as they rise, the..." by Len Roberts, from Counting the Black Angels. © The University of Illinois Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Bosnian writer Zlata Filipović (books by this author), born in Sarajevo in 1980. Someone gave her a journal when she was 10, and she had recently read Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and The Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, so she decided she'd keep a diary too. The following year, she found herself in the middle of the Bosnian war, which broke out in April 1992, and her diary became much more "Anne Frank" than "Adrian Mole." That summer, word got out that UNICEF was looking for children's diaries to publish, so she sent them the first three months' entries. Foreign journalists spread the word, and the Filipović family was evacuated to Paris. The complete text of her journal was eventually published as Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo (1993). Now 31, she has a master's degree in international peace studies. She recently co-edited the book Stolen Voices: Young People's War Diaries from World War I to Iraq (2006).

In 1992, when she was 11, she wrote: "Everything is being destroyed, burned, the people are in shelters. Here in the middle of town, where we live, it's different. It's quiet. People go out. It was a nice warm spring day today. We went out too. Vaso Miskin Street was full of people, children. It looked like a peace march. People came out to be together, they don't want war. They want to live and enjoy themselves the way they used to. That's only natural, isn't it? Who likes or wants war, when it's the worst thing in the world?"

Later in the diary, when it seemed there was no end in sight, she wrote: "If things go on like this, I'll be 20 in a few years time. If it turns out to be another 'Lebanon,' as they keep saying, I'll be 30. Gone will be my childhood. Gone my youth. Gone my life. And I'll die and this war still won't be over."

Today is the birthday of Joseph Conrad (books by this author), born in Berdichev, Ukraine (1857), in a region that had once been part of Poland. His father was a poet and translator of English and French literature. Joseph and his father read books written in both Polish and French. By the time he was 12 years old, both of his parents had died of tuberculosis. He went to Switzerland to live with his uncle, but after a few years he decided he wanted to go off and see the world. He joined the French merchant marine, and began a long career as a sailor. He sailed to Australia, Borneo, Malaysia, South America, the South Pacific, and Africa. He joined the British merchant navy, and in 1886 became a citizen of Great Britain.

In the fall of 1889, Conrad settled in London for a few months. One morning, after he finished his breakfast, he told his maid to clear away all the dishes immediately. Normally, he would sit by the window and read from a book by Dickens or Hugo or Shakespeare. But on this morning he felt unusually calm and perceptive. He later wrote, "It was an autumn day ... with fiery points and flashes of red sunlight on the roofs and windows opposite, while the trees of the square with all their leaves gone were like tracings of an Indian ink on a sheet of tissue paper." He began to write his first novel, Almayer's Folly, which would be published six years later. It's about a man from the Netherlands who trades on the jungle rivers of Borneo. Conrad said, "The conception of a planned book was entirely outside my mental range when I sat down to write." He said he felt "a hidden obscure necessity, a completely masked and unaccountable phenomenon."

His best-known story is Heart of Darkness (1899). It first appeared as a three-part serial in Blackwood's Magazine, and was later published as a novella in 1903. It's the story of an English riverboat captain in the Congo who is sent to retrieve an ivory trader, Kurtz, who has been living as a demigod among the African natives. The novella has been adapted several times, beginning with Orson Welles' radio production in 1938. Most recently, it was made into an opera by Tarik O'Regan and Tom Phillips; it premiered at the Royal Opera House in London this year. The most famous adaptation moved the novella's action from Africa to southeast Asia and set the story during the Vietnam War: Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film, Apocalypse Now. The film stars Martin Sheen as an Army captain who has been sent to track down and kill a rogue officer, Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), living in the Cambodian jungle.

Conrad wrote: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, above all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything."

Neon lighting was first demonstrated on this date in 1910. It was invented by a Frenchman named Georges Claude, and he debuted it at a Paris auto show — which also happened to be the world's first auto show.

Neon is an inert gas, the illuminating properties of which were discovered in 1898 by William Ramsey and Morris Travers. The two extracted some pure neon from the atmosphere and contained it in a glass tube; when they stimulated it with electricity, the gas glowed red. The neon tubes became popular as novelties, but until a method was developed for the large-scale production of neon gas, there was no thought of using them as light sources or flashy signs. Claude hit upon a neon production method while he was working on a process to liquefy air. The tubes he demonstrated at the Paris show were about 39 feet long, and bright red. Soon other gases were used, to produce other colors: each gas has its own color, which serves as a kind of fingerprint.

Claude had envisioned neon as a light source, not an advertising medium, but within three years, there was a big glowing sign advertising Cinzano vermouth lighting up the sky over Paris. Neon signage was adopted with increasing frequency from 1920 onward, and by 1940 nearly every city in the United States sported a dazzling array. New York City's Times Square became a world famous kinetic display of dancing lights, and Las Vegas's appeal grew in direct proportion to its luminescence. Tom Wolfe wrote in a 1965 essay: "Las Vegas is the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs. One can look at Las Vegas from a mile away on route 91 and see no buildings, no trees, only signs. But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show