Sep. 30, 2012

Shifting the Sun

by Diana Der-Hovanessian

When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather.
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Canadians,
you run out of excuses. May you inherit
his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the French,
you become your own father.
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians,
he comes back as the thunder.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,
he takes your childhood with him.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the English,
you join his club you vowed you wouldn't.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever.
And you walk in his light.

"Shifting the Sun" by Diana Der-Hovanessian, from Selected Poems. © Sheep Meadow Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the poet W.S. Merwin (books by this author), born William Stanley Merwin in New York City (1927). He started writing poems when he was four or five years old, he said — at first, they were mostly hymns to give to his father, a Presbyterian minister. He describes himself as a repressed child, never saying no to anyone, always compliant, but remembers vividly one day flying into a rage, hurling himself at two men who'd come to trim limbs from a tree in the family yard.

Merwin served in World War II and spent the end of the war as a pacifist, locked up in the Navy mental hospital. He knew at a young age he wanted to write, and at 18, he visited the writer Ezra Pound in prison to ask his advice. Pound told him that at his age he had nothing to say, but it was important to write daily, so he recommended working as a translator. Merwin took the advice to heart and spent the next years translating works in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. He studied literature and Romance languages at Princeton, gained the admiring attention of W. H. Auden and it was during this time that he developed a distinctive style of open punctuation that still marks his work.

In 1971, Merwin received the Pulitzer Prize for his collection The Carrier of Ladders, but he used the publicity to passionately speak out against the Vietnam War, alienating Auden in the process. He moved to Hawaii to study Buddhism and soon settled down on a three-acre banana plantation atop a dormant volcano. A committed conservationist, Merwin, with his wife, Paula, spent the next 30 years restoring the land, planting huge papaya, mango, and palm trees. They also tend to endangered plants, many native to Hawaii.

Merwin has published 21 collections of poetry, including Opening the Hand (1983) and The Shadow of Sirius (2009), for which he earned his second Pulitzer. There are few honors in poetry he hasn't received. And in 2010, he was tapped as the poet laureate of the U.S.

On this day in 1949, the Berlin Airlift ended, and with it the largest humanitarian aid effort in history. It had gone on for more than a year. At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into sections, controlled by France, England, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The city of Berlin was divided into east and west, and on June 24, 1948, Soviet troops blockaded all land traffic in and out of the western sector of the city in an attempt to push the population into the east and consolidate control.

Over the next year, more than a million civilians and 20,000 Allied troops were fed and supplied by air alone in what was dubbed "Operation Vittles." West Berlin needed 4,500 tons daily just to subsist, and the top military planners doubted the plan's success. But the weekly records kept getting broken.

The highest level of activity came when Tunner instituted an Easter "blitz," which involved a takeoff every 36 seconds and delivered 13,000 tons in just two days. The first skirmish of the Cold War could have easily gone hot, as Soviet planes darted at the Allied supply chain, staged awkward parachute training near the flight paths, and trained flood lights on the planes to distract them. When the Soviets finally relented and removed the blockade on May 12th, hundreds of thousands of cheering West Germans greeted the first land convoy. The airlift continued for a few months to be safe, but on this day the 276,926th flight touched down in Berlin, bringing an end to "Operation Vittles."

Today is the birthday of the journalist, novelist, and human rights activist Elie Wiesel (books by this author), born Eliezer Wiesel in Sighet, Romania (1928). He grew up in a Hasidic community and learned to love reading by studying the Pentateuch and other sacred texts. When he was 15, he and his family were rounded up and deported by cattle car to the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Poland. Wiesel lied about his age and was sent to a labor camp with his father, while his mother and a sister went directly to the gas chambers. Wiesel survived eight months at Auschwitz, then Buna and Buchenwald. Between camps, his father died from dysentery and exhaustion. Near the war's end, the guards stopped feeding the prisoners and started killing thousands a day. On the morning of April 11, 1945, an uprising took place within the camp, and it was liberated later that day.

While hospitalized upon his release, Wiesel sketched an outline for a book on his experiences but found it unbearable to face and he put it aside, telling himself he'd return to it someday. He was sent with other orphans to live in France, and a chance photo of him in the newspaper reunited him with his two surviving sisters. He stayed in France and began to study literature and psychology at the Sorbonne. He struggled mostly and was at times suicidal until coming across a militant Jewish organization in Palestine that needed writers for their paper. He began reporting for them and soon found a niche for himself as a foreign correspondent for various French papers.

Finally, a mentor, François Mauriac, persuaded Wiesel to write about the war, and over the course of a year, he wrote in Yiddish an almost 900-page memoir, called And the World Was Silent. He found a publisher in Argentina who trimmed the book down to around 300 pages, retitling it Night (1958). Wiesel said: "There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred that is a result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don't see them." Though it initially sold just a few thousand copies, Night has since been translated into 30 languages and has sold roughly 10 million copies worldwide.

For the next decade, Wiesel put out almost a book a year, including Dawn (1961), The Town Beyond the Wall (1962), and A Beggar in Jerusalem (1968), all dealing with the Jewish experience before and after the Holocaust. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in literature for his writing and teaching. He was instrumental in establishing the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and he has campaigned against violence and racism in Darfur, Bosnia, and South Africa.

He said: "Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds."

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