Aug. 24, 2012


by Jim Harrison

They used to say we're living on borrowed
time but even when young I wondered
who loaned it to us? In 1948 one grandpa
died stretched tight in a misty oxygen tent,
his four sons gathered, his papery hand
grasping mine. Only a week before, we were fishing.
Now the four sons have all run out of borrowed time
while I'm alive wondering whom I owe
for this indisputable gift of existence.
Of course time is running out. It always
has been a creek heading east, the freight
of water with its surprising heaviness
following the slant of the land, its destiny.
What is lovelier than a creek or riverine thicket?
Say it is an unknown benefactor who gave us
birds and Mozart, the mystery of trees and water
and all living things borrowing time.
Would I still love the creek if I lasted forever?

"Debtors" by Jim Harrison, from Songs of Unreason. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). In 1955, at about the same time he lost his sight, Borges was appointed director of Argentina's National Public Library. He said: "Little by little I came to realize the strange irony of events. I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Others think of a garden or of a palace. There I was, the center, in a way, of 900,000 books in various languages, but I found I could barely make out the title pages and the spines. I wrote the 'Poem of the Gifts,' which begins: 'No one should read self-pity or reproach / into this statement of the majesty / of God, who with such splendid irony / granted me books and blindness at one touch.'"

After he went blind, Borges turned from writing prose fiction to formal poetry. He dictated his writing to his mother, Leonor Acevedo, who worked as his personal secretary and lived to be 99 years old.

His books include Fictions (Ficciones, 1944), The Aleph (El Aleph, 1949), Book of Imaginary Beings (Manual de zoología fantástica, 1957), and Dreamtigers (El Hacedor, 1960).

He said: "A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Herrick (books by this author), born in London (1591). He grew up poor in a large family, the son of a goldsmith. He had a failed six-year apprenticeship as a goldsmith, so he became a clergyman and spent several years in London as a devotee of the poet Ben Jonson. Herrick regularly gathered with other "Sons of Ben" and Jonson himself at one of the local taverns — the Mermaid Tavern and the Devil Tavern were favorites. Herrick wrote his ode to Jonson about these meetings:

Ah Ben!
Say how, or when
Shall we thy guests
Meet at those lyric feasts
Made at the Sun,
The Dog, the Triple Tun?
Where we such clusters had
As made us nobly wild, not mad;
And yet each verse of thine
Outdid the meat, outdid the frolic wine.

My Ben
Or come again,
Or send to us
Thy wit's great overplus;
But teach us yet
Wisely to husband it;
Lest we that talent spend,
And having once brought to an end
That precious stock, the store
Of such a wit the world should have no more.

When he was 39, Herrick left his tavern days behind when he was posted as a vicar in a small village in Devon, where he lived for more than 30 years. He wrote more than 2,500 poems, including "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time," which begins: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying; / And this same flower that smiles today, / Tomorrow will be dying."

It was on this day in the year 410 that Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. It was the first time in 800 years that Rome was successfully invaded.

The leader of the Visigoths was a man named Alaric. They came from what is now Germany, and were one of the many tribes who were suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire. Roman leaders enforced higher and higher taxes on the people in their outer provinces, and corrupt local officials grew wealthy while the people stayed poor. Rebellions broke out, and the Visigoths started moving toward Rome. Once it became clear that the Visigoths were preparing to invade the city, about 30,000 Roman soldiers and slaves defected to Alaric's army — many of them had been captured from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire and forced into servitude.

The Visigoths began their siege of Rome in 408, and soon residents were starving. Alaric agreed to end the siege in return for 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 pounds of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 pounds of pepper, and 3,000 leather hides. But Alaric's next round of negotiations fell apart; furious, he returned to his siege on Rome, and the city soon fell to the Visigoths.

St. Jerome, one of the great Church leaders of the day, was living in Bethlehem when Rome fell. He wrote: "My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken." Those who were not Christians blamed Christianity for destroying the long-lived Roman Empire. St. Augustine, living in Hippo, wrote an entire book called City of God to reassure Christians that the fall of Rome was not a judgment on Christianity.

The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, who is most famous for his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), called Rome's fall "the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind."

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