Jun. 19, 2012

Out Here

by Joe Paddock

Small towns out on the prairie
are mostly clean and bright now
and maybe turned a notch or two
too tight.

Panting dogs no longer
run free out here. And drunks
no longer stagger and fall
along Main Street. Their singing
is not so much missed, but
Main could use a bit more song.

Life and death, the great stories,
continue here. Love is allowed,
and young mothers still bear down
on the birth canal. Children squall,
and old ones, too much restrained
and hidden, too seldom singing, sink
slowly away.

I sometimes walk
our ever-widening fields
of graves and wonder
what boredom and struggle led each
to just this rest? And wonder
are their bones bitter
for having known too little
incandescence, too little song?

In spring and fall, the whole
incandescent sky sometimes yelps
with geese, long lines wavering
with great certainty toward
a true destination.

Last night, on a bench
in Central Park, a pair of girls
with fading light in their hair,
sat waiting, waiting, and O,
their yearning was deep
and sweet as the evening
singing of robins
in the darkening boughs
above them.

"Out Here" by Joe Paddock, from A Sort of Honey. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Juneteenth, also known as "Freedom Day" or "Emancipation Day." It's a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It was on this date in 1865 that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, to spread the word that slavery had been abolished. Of course, the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect some two and a half years earlier, in January 1863; most Confederate states ignored it until they were forced to free their slaves by advancing Union troops.

From the balcony of Galveston's Ashton Villa, General Gordon read the contents of General Order Number Three: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

Galveston's former slaves celebrated that day, and formal Juneteenth festivities were held in other parts of Texas on the first anniversary. Celebrations of the holiday have waxed and waned over the years; today, Juneteenth is celebrated in communities all over the country, and as of April 2012, it's officially recognized as a holiday by the governments of 42 of the United States. Observances often include a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and performances of traditional African-American music, dancing, and literature.

Today is the birthday of mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was a child prodigy, and by the time he was 19, he had already perfected the first mechanical calculator for sale to the public. In the field of physics, he discovered that air has weight and proved that vacuums are possible in nature. In mathematics, he founded the theory of probabilities and developed an early form of integral calculus. He also invented the syringe and the hydraulic press.

He was often torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one. When he was 23, he began to feel the need to withdraw from the world and devote his life to God. He did just that, for a while, but soon threw himself back into his scientific pursuits, working so hard he made himself ill. He returned to religion for good after a mystical conversion experience, which he called the "night of fire," in 1654, and entered the Abbey of Port-Royal in January 1655. He lived as an informal hermit, and he never again published under his own name. He only wrote things that the monks requested, and he produced two great works of religious philosophy: Provincial Letters (1657) and Thoughts (1658).

He wrote, "In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't."

It's the birthday of the music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1945). After he graduated from Berkeley, he got a job writing reviews for Rolling Stone magazine. He was frustrated, though, because most reviewers just wanted to talk about lyrics, and he wanted to go deeper. He wanted to write about music the way Pauline Kael wrote about movies. So Rolling Stone's founder, Jann Wenner, made him an editor instead. In the decades since, he's written numerous volumes of rock music criticism and other criticism, including A New Literary History of America (2009). It's a collection of essays — nearly 1,100 pages long — which he co-edited with Werner Sollors. The book covers Colonial days to the election of Barack Obama.

His most recent book is The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years (2011), and a collection of his interviews, Conversations with Greil Marcus, is due out this year (2012). He's also at work on "an intimate history of rock 'n' roll."

Today is the birthday of novelist Salman Rushdie (books by this author), born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India (1947).

In 1987, he published a book called The Satanic Verses, which got mixed reviews. Most Western critics didn't notice that it would be offensive to Muslims. But a month after the book came out, it was banned in India and book burnings throughout the Muslim world followed. The Ayatollah Khomeini eventually announced that Rushdie should be sentenced to death for blasphemy, and he placed a $1.5 million bounty on Rushdie's head. Rushdie had to go into hiding. His Italian translator was threatened and stabbed. His Japanese translator was murdered. His Norwegian publisher was attacked and left for dead. Rushdie spent the next nine years moving from place to place. He lived in more than 30 houses. He found it difficult to write, so he helped set up an international organization for the protection of persecuted writers. The death sentence was finally lifted in 1998.

Rushdie's memoir about the Ayatollah's fatwa, titled Joseph Anton: A Memoir, comes out this September (2012). "Joseph Anton" was the pseudonym he used while in hiding. It's a combination of the names of two of his favorite authors: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

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