Sep. 8, 2012

New Religion

by Bill Holm

This morning no sound but the loud
breathing of the sea. Suppose that under
all that salt water lived the god
that humans have spent ten thousand years
trawling the heavens for.
We caught the wrong metaphor.
Real space is wet and underneath,
the church of shark and whale and cod.
The noise of those vast lungs
exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.
Heaven's not up but down, and hell
is to evaporate in air. Salvation,
to drown and breathe
forever with the sea.

"New Religion" by Bill Holm, from The Chain Letter of the Soul: New & Selected Poems. © Milkweed Editions, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his sculpture David. The project was first imagined more than 30 years earlier, in 1463, when the sculptor Agostino di Duccio accepted a commission to sculpt a biblical figure for one of the buttresses of the Santa Maria del Fiore, a cathedral in Florence. Duccio was given a block of marble more than 19 feet high, but he gave up after a rough attempt at the feet and legs. The commission was passed to another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, who also gave up.

The piece was forgotten for a while, and the hunk of marble sat in a courtyard until 1501, when the Church authorities revived their project. It was about that time that they started referring to the sculpture as David. The Church settled on awarding the commission to 26-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo was undaunted by the huge piece of marble, even though it had the mistakes of the two previous sculptors already carved into it. He began sculpting in the fall of 1501 and finished less than two years later, in the summer of 1503. A group of artists — including Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo da Vinci — assembled to decide where to move the statue, since the idea of using it as a buttress for the cathedral seemed less practical now that the marble was weakened from years of exposure to the elements, and because the statue was 17 feet tall and weighed several tons. It took a huge effort to move Davidto its new location outside the Palazzo della Signoria. The diarist Luca Landucci wrote about the David, which he called 'the giant,' in his diary: "During the night stones were thrown at the giant to injure it, therefore it was necessary to keep watch over it. It went very slowly, being bound in an erect position, and suspended so that it did not touch the ground with its feet. There were immensely strong beams, constructed with great skill; and it took four days to reach the Piazza [...] It was moved along by more than 40 men. Beneath it there were 14 greased beams, which were changed from hand to hand; and they labored till the 8th July, 1504, to place it on the ringhiera."

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea (books by this author). For years, he had been living in Cuba and working on an epic novel about the sea, but he couldn't quite get it right. So he decided to publish a small piece of it, just 27,000 words long, which he called The Old Man and the Sea. He released it in the September 1st issue of Life magazine, which cost 20 cents. That month, it was published by Charles Scribner's Sons for $3.

Hemingway's last major work had been For Whom the Bell Tolls, published 12 years earlier in 1940. His book Across the River and Into the Trees (1950) sold fewer than 100,000 copies, all the critics panned it, and there was a general feeling that maybe Hemingway's best days as a writer were passed. The Old Man and the Sea changed all that. The Life version sold more than 5 million copies in two days, and it was a best-seller in book form, as well.

In it, Hemingway wrote: "The shark swung over and the old man saw his eye was not alive and then he swung over once again, wrapping himself in two loops of the rope. The old man knew that he was dead but the shark would not accept it. Then, on his back, with his tail lashing and his jaws clicking, the shark plowed over the water as a speed-boat does. The water was white where his tail beat it and three-quarters of his body was clear above the water when the rope came taut, shivered, and then snapped. The shark lay quietly for a little while on the surface and the old man watched him. Then he went down very slowly. 'He took about forty pounds,' the old man said aloud. He took my harpoon too and all the rope, he thought, and now my fish bleeds again and there will be others. [...] It was too good to last, he thought. I wish it had been a dream now and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers. 'But man is not made for defeat,' he said. 'A man can be destroyed but not defeated.'"

It was the last book that Hemingway published during his lifetime; in 1961, with his physical and mental health deteriorating, he committed suicide.

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