Apr. 3, 2013

April Chores

by Jane Kenyon

When I take the chilly tools
from the shed's darkness, I come
out to a world made new
by heat and light.

The snake basks and dozes
on a large flat stone.
It reared and scolded me
for raking too close to its hole.

Like a mad red brain
the involute rhubarb leaf
thinks its way up
through loam.

"April Chores" by Jane Kenyon, from Collected Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Washington Irving (books by this author), born in 1783 in New York City. That same week, the British cease-fire was brokered and the American Revolution ended, and William and Sarah Irving named their youngest child in honor of its most famous general, George Washington.

He began publishing commentary and theater reviews at the age of 19, under the name Jonathan Oldstyle. His earliest major writings were satires, and for this he wrote under several assorted pen names as well, including Dietrich Knickerbocker. Under this moniker he came out with A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, a satire on self-important historical and political writing. The public ate it up, and the book was followed by collections of short stories and essays, including The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819), which contained his two most famous stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle."

Irving's legacy is much more a part of American life than most of us are aware of:

He wrote a collection of "sketches" called "Old Christmas," which revived many old English Christmas traditions and restored the holiday's prominence in America. Charles Dickens credited Irving for much of the holiday's portrayal in A Christmas Carol, and Santa's flying sleigh traces back to a dream sequence in Irving's A History of New-York, in which Saint Nicholas arrives in a flying wagon.

He's the one who first used the phrase "the almighty dollar," and he coined one of New York's most enduring nicknames, "Gotham," which is Anglo-Saxon for "Goat Town," and which comes from a town called Gotham [GOAT-um] in Lincolnshire, England, which was famous for tales of its stupid residents. The residents of New Goat Town are sometimes known as "Knickerbockers," after one of his pseudonyms, and that's also where the New York Knicks basketball team got its name.

On this day in 1888, the first of London's Whitechapel Murders was committed. Over the course of three years, 11 women — all of them prostitutes — were killed in grisly fashion. The murders have never been solved, but at least five of them are thought to be the work of a single serial killer who became known as Jack the Ripper. The Whitechapel District, located in London's East End, was a cesspool of crime and poverty, and murders and assaults were commonplace.

The investigation into the Ripper killings marks the first attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, to catch a murderer through the use of psychological profiling. The identity of Jack the Ripper has never been determined, though fascination with him persists and theories abound. The murders stopped in 1891, probably because the killer died, was imprisoned for another crime, or left the country altogether.

Today marked the opening, in 1895, of the sensational libel case, Wilde vs. Queensberry, in London. For a number of years, Oscar Wilde had been having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, the handsome, spoiled, reckless son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde was utterly smitten with Douglas, known as "Bosie," and was quite happy to indulge his every whim. The Marquess, a hotheaded brawler most famous for creating the modern rules of boxing, had his suspicions about their relationship, and showed up at Wilde's home in 1894 armed with threats: "I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, and that is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you." Wilde responded, "I don't know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rules are to shoot on sight."

The following February, the Marquess left a calling card at Wilde's club, on which he had written, "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]." Since this amounted to a public accusation of a felony, Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel, at the urging of his lover. Queensberry's only defense was to prove that the charges were true, and set about to do so with the help of an army of private detectives. He presented so much evidence that Wilde protested helplessly, "I am the prosecutor in this case." He dropped the case, on the advice of his lawyer, and Queensberry was acquitted, but soon afterward a warrant was issued for Wilde's arrest on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to two years' hard labor, the maximum sentence allowed under the law.

It was on this day in 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had come to support striking sanitation workers, in which he famously said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!"

The next day, he was assassinated.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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