Aug. 23, 2012


by Katrina Vandenberg

That summer in the west I walked sunrise
to dusk, narrow twisted highways without shoulders,
low stone walls on both sides. Hedgerows
of fuchsia hemmed me in, the tropical plant
now wild, centuries after nobles imported it
for their gardens. I was unafraid,
did not cross to the outsides of curves, did not
look behind me for what might be coming.
For weeks in counties Kerry and Cork, I walked
through the red blooms the Irish call
the Tears of God, blazing from the brush
like lanterns. Who would have thought
a warm current touching the shore
of that stone-cold country could make
lemon trees, bananas, and palms not just take,
but thrive? Wild as the jungles they came from,
where boas flexed around their trunks —
like my other brushes with miracles,
the men who love you back, how they come
to you, gorgeous and invasive, improbable,
hemming you in. And you walk that road
blazing, some days not even afraid to die.

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

It's the birthday of humorist Will Cuppy (books by this author), born in Auburn, Indiana (1884). He spent seven years as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, before he finally dropped out and moved to New York City. He wrote advertising copy and tried to write a play, but it didn't work out. He decided that the big city was too distracting for him, so he moved to Jones Beach Island, off the south shore of Long Island. For eight years, he lived in a shack made of tarpaper, clapboard, and tin, which he called "Tottering-on-the-Brink." The only other people living on the island were members of the Coast Guard, who invited him to dinner, patched his roof, and rowed him to the mainland on the rare occasions when he had to go into the city. The Jones Beach State Park expanded and forced Cuppy out of his shack, so he moved back to Manhattan and published How to be a Hermit (1929), which was a best-seller — it went through six printings in four months. In it, he wrote: "'A hermit is simply a person to whom civilization has failed to adjust itself."

Newfound fame and a life in Greenwich Village didn't change Cuppy's hermitic habits. He researched and wrote at night and slept during the day, he ordered food delivered to him, and he talked only occasionally to other people, mostly via letters. He was a prolific writer — he wrote essays for The New Yorker, and reviewed mysteries and crime fiction in his column "Mystery and Adventure" for the New York Herald Tribune — he read and reviewed more than 4,000 novels throughout his career. His essays were published in books like How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931) and How to Attract the Wombat (1949).

As Cuppy got older, he became more and more isolated, and depressed. His health deteriorated, he felt like he was being replaced by younger journalists, and he became estranged from one of his oldest friends. In 1949, he received notice that he would be evicted from the apartment where he had lived ever since he left Jones Beach Island. He committed suicide before he could be evicted. The following year, his book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950) was published posthumously, and it spent more than four months on the New York Times best-seller list.

Cuppy said: "Intelligence is the capacity to know what we are doing and instinct is just instinct. The results are about the same."

It's the birthday of writer Edgar Lee Masters (books by this author), born in Garnett, Kansas (1868). He spent most of his childhood on his grandparents' farm near Petersburg, Illinois. He grew up surrounded by extended family — his grandparents took him to church, and his uncle took him on adventures.

Masters worked as a lawyer in Chicago, sharing a law practice with Clarence Darrow, the attorney who went on to defend high school science teacher John Scopes in the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. His real dream was to be a poet. He published a few poems, and a friend sent him Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, little poems about daily life in ancient Greece. Masters was inspired to write his own version — small poems about ordinary life in rural Illinois. The result was Spoon River Anthology (1915), in which more than 200 dead citizens of the fictional town of Spoon River recount their lives. It was so successful, he was able to give up law and devote himself full time to writing poetry.

One of the epitaphs is "Fiddler Jones":
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind's in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to "Toor-a-Loor."
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill — only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle —
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

It was on this day in 1305 that Scottish rebel William Wallace was executed by the English in London. He was convicted on charges of treason for his role in the Wars of Scottish Independence, which were brought on after the Scottish king Alexander III died and the throne passed to his granddaughter and sole heir Margaret, who died on the ship to Scotland. Several powerful lords rushed to claim the throne, and unsure what to do, the Guardians of Scotland asked the king of England, Edward I, to come in and mediate. Instead, Edward seized the throne himself.

Wallace's first known act of defiance was assassinating an English sheriff. According to the Scottish poet Blind Harry, writing about Wallace in the 15th century, Wallace killed the sheriff as an act of vengeance for the death of his beloved wife, Marion. In 1297, Wallace helped lead the Scottish army, which was severely outnumbered, to victory against the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Blind Harry claimed that Wallace cut off the skin of the most despised English commander and used it to make a scabbard for his broadsword.

In August of 1305, Wallace was betrayed and turned over to the English by a Scottish knight. He was tried for treason. His defense was that he could not have committed treason against the English because King Edward I was never his ruler. For his punishment, he was tied to a horse's tail and dragged naked through the streets of London, then hanged, but taken down while he was still alive. His organs were cut out of him, he was decapitated, his head was put on a pike, and pieces of his body were sent back to Scotland as a warning.

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