Jul. 23, 2012

The Berkshire hills the book that opens
again with each curve where the woods take back
what they just said ditch lilies ditch lilies
open orange eager in the Berkshires the mills
are no longer milling paper milling wool
they're milling memories of themselves
as useful they mill this skein of highway clumps
of lilies woolly thoughts the letter M its hieroglyph
a set of Mediterranean waves and the Phoenicians
who drew M first ship-makers wave-walkers
consider them first looking out then in          the mills
are milling the Housatonic river it skims
a thousand rocks is almost close enough to touch all
landscape here is intimate hemmed in a book
close to the face not an open book as we say
more the way a baby sees from its mother's breast
to her face and that is all an open book is
one small room its talk a little talk its form
a reinforcement of five hundred years of private
thought along with the invention of the separate
room a sudden set of separate fires the ancient
Berkshire hills their mills are milling spotted
dairy cows and wooly sheep alphabet of camels
oxen fish if my northern tribe had drawn M first
M would have been a hieroglyph for milk the cows
goats sheep they learned to drink from or starve
la mer, la mère the sound of M for mother
in nearly every language the early sounds a baby
makes M for delicious
the motors hum delicious
drowsing off the shape of these worn-down hills the mills
mill poems walls of stone tonight they mill the stars
M for ma, the Japanese idea of space
and silence as a thing not absence on the radio
today they talk about the death of books
of spacious thought the book a footnote
a single clump of lilies one river thread
I think of books as milk from other animals

"M" by Katrina Vandenberg, from The Alphabet Not Unlike the World. © Milkweed Editions, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of detective novelist Raymond Chandler (books by this author), born in Chicago (1888). He didn't start writing fiction until he was in his 40s, after he was fired from his job as the vice president of an oil company. He wrote short stories and seven novels, including The Big Sleep (1939), The Little Sister (1949), and The Long Goodbye (1954). His protagonist was Philip Marlowe, a tough-talking, hard-drinking private eye with a knack for metaphors.

He wrote: "I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stockings. [...] The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim and with enough melodic line for a tone poem."

It's the birthday of novelist Hubert Selby Jr. (books by this author), born in New York (1928). He dropped out of school when he was 15 and joined the Merchant Marine. He spent 10 years in treatment for lung disease, much of that time in bed, and finally his doctors told him there was no hope. He was addicted to painkillers. He said: "Two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. [...] This did not make me a writer, but it provided the incentive to discover that I am a writer." He proved his doctors wrong, and he spent six years working on a novel that became Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).

Last Exit to Brooklyn was a success, and suddenly he was faced with interviews and public speaking. He said: "In retrospect I can see that it was relatively easy to write when no one knew I was alive. The world had no expectations. But when the world is watching you, and you believe in your heart that you are really worthless and someday they will find out, the pressure is unbearable. I simply withdrew into a shell and didn't write for six years."

He did start writing again, and he has published six more novels, including Requiem for a Dream (1978) and, most recently, Waiting Period (2002).

It was on this day in 1903 that the Ford Motor Company sold its first car, a two-cylinder Model A. It was sold to a Chicago dentist named Ernst Pfenning, who paid $850 for it. The Model A was painted red, with a seat that fit two people, and no roof. It reached 28 mph at top speed. The Ford Motor Company had organized just a month earlier. There were 12 stockholders, including Henry Ford himself, who was also the vice president and chief engineer.

Ford had $28,000 in investment funds, but by the time the first Model A was sold, the company had just $224 left in the bank. Fewer than 2,000 Model As sold during the two years it was manufactured, but it was enough to make the Ford Motor Company profitable. In 1908, five years after selling the first Model A, Ford rolled out its Model T, and the company truly took off. The Model T was the first car produced on assembly lines, and Ford marketed it to the middle-class. He said: "I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, and to the simplest design that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces." As the Ford assembly plant became even more efficient, the price of the Model T dropped — by 1918, the most basic Model T cost less than $350, and about half of the cars being driven in America were Model Ts.

Gertrude Stein loved her Model T. She wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: "Our little ford was almost ready. She was later to be called Auntie after Gertrude Stein's aunt Pauline who always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was properly flattered." She took a mechanics course so that she could repair it herself, and she drove it as an ambulance driver in World War II.

John Steinbeck was another Model T enthusiast. He said: "Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. [...] With the Model T, part of the concept of private property disappeared. Pliers ceased to be privately owned and a tire pump belonged to the last man who had picked it up. Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few were born in them." Sinclair Lewis's wife wrote in her memoirs that she thought her husband received more pleasure from their Model T than from seeing Main Street in print or winning the Nobel Prize.

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