Feb. 19, 2014

Half the Truth

by Jack Gilbert

The birds do not sing in these mornings. The skies
are white all day. The Canadian geese fly over
high up in the moonlight with the lonely sound
of their discontent. Going south. Now the rains
and soon the snow. The black trees are leafless,
the flowers gone. Only cabbages are left
in the bedraggled garden. Truth becomes visible,
the architecture of the soul begins to show through.
God has put off his panoply and is at home with us.
We are returned to what lay beneath the beauty.
We have resumed our lives. There is no hurry now.
We make love without rushing and find ourselves
afterward with someone we know well. Time to be
what we are getting ready to be next. This loving,
this relishing, our gladness, this being puts down
roots and comes back again year after year.

"Half the Truth" by Jack Gilbert from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Carson McCullers (books by this author) born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia (1917). At the age of 17, she moved to New York City. She was an accomplished classical pianist, and she planned to study at Juilliard, but she somehow lost her tuition money — she told contradictory stories, sometimes that she forgot it on the subway, other times that an acquaintance had taken it. In any case, her dreams of a career in music never materialized. She started writing and publishing short stories. She got married, moved to North Carolina, and worked on a novel, which was published when she was just 23 years old: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). The book was a literary sensation, and remains well thought of to this day, with the Modern Library ranking it 17th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

McCullers's final years were plagued by a steady decline in health. She suffered two strokes that sent her into a dark depression, and she and her husband drank and fought often. Through it all, she kept writing short stories, plays, and novels, including Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941), The Member of the Wedding (1946), and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). Her final work was a children's verse collection titled Sweet as a Pickle, Clean as a Pig, which was published in 1964. She died of a stroke three years later at the Nyack Hospital in New York. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams were among the many attendees at her funeral.

On this day in 1963, journalist Betty Friedan (books by this author) published her first book, The Feminine Mystique, which begins: "The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?'" That question would end up sparking a second wave of feminism in the United States, would permanently transform the American social fabric, and the book would come to be seen as a pioneering moment in American history and one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

It's the birthday of novelist Jonathan Lethem (books by this author), born in New York City (1964). His parents were bohemian idealists, and there were only a handful of other white kids in Jonathan's school. He was bullied a lot, and to escape, he became obsessed with comic books and science fiction novels.

When he became a novelist, he decided to write a book based on his own childhood, a story about a white kid named Dylan and a black kid named Mingus growing up together in 1970s Brooklyn. In the book, the friends find a magic ring that gives them superhero powers. That novel was The Fortress of Solitude (2003), a best-selling novel whose title comes from the name of Superman's headquarters.

The Fortress of Solitude begins: "Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o'clock on an evening in July."

It was on this day in 1945 that U.S. Marines began their invasion of Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima, whose name means Sulfur Island, is a small volcanic island 660 miles off the coast of mainland Japan, just eight square miles. The writer William Manchester described Iwo Jima as "an ugly, smelly glob of cold lava squatting in a surly ocean." A Japanese officer offered up: "An island of sulphur, no water, no sparrow, no swallow." An American Marine described it as "Hell with the fire out, but still smoking." Other Americans pointed out its resemblance to a pork chop.

The Allied forces wanted to control the island because it would be a good strategic base from which to bomb Japan. The Japanese were well aware of that and had the island heavily guarded. Beginning in February of 1944 — a full year before the all-out attack on Iwo Jima — American bombers began shelling the island, hoping to weaken the Japanese defense. So the Japanese moved their defense underground. The island was connected by a series of underground caves, and the Japanese moved their troops and weapons into them. The island was soft, an easy place to dig, and the abundance of sand made easy concrete. The Japanese engineered a complex 11-mile-long system of connected caves, bunkers, and weapons emplacements. Their heaviest artillery was placed behind steel doors that could be opened and then shut again before the Americans could fire back. Underneath the island's highest point — Mt. Suribachi — was an installation seven stories deep.

On this day in 1945, 450 American ships congregated off the shores of the island, and a little after 9 a.m., the first Marine divisions made their way ashore. Everything was completely still and silent, and at first the Marines thought that maybe all the Japanese had been killed during the bombardment. Finally, the Japanese opened fire, and by evening of that first day, more than 500 Marines were dead and 1,800 wounded.

It was just four days later that the Marines raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on Iwo Jima and a center of the Japanese defense. A small platoon of Marines made it to the top and tied a small American flag to a piece of pipe they found up there in the rubble. A Marine photographer captured the moment in a photograph. About the same time, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal landed on Iwo Jima, and he thought that the flag should be saved as a souvenir for the battalion that had captured the area. He sent a handful of Marines up to Mt. Suribachi, along with AP photographer Joe Rosenthal, to replace the first flag with a much bigger one. It was this second flag raising that was captured in Rosenthal's photograph "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima," which became one of the most famous images of World War II and won a Pulitzer Prize. Of the six soldiers shown raising the flag, only three of them survived the battle.

Although the U.S. military hoped that the battle would take two weeks, it lasted five weeks. Approximately 70,000 Marines invaded Iwo Jima, and 6,800 were killed. Out of about 21,000 Japanese defending the island to begin with, 20,000 were killed.

The writer P.J. O'Rourke said: "From the air Iwo Jima looks as small as it is, a reminder of the insignificance of the great tactical objectives of war. The landscape at Ypres is banal. The beaches at Normandy are not as nice as those in East Hampton. From the top of Cemetery Ridge, at Gettysburg, the prospect is less awe-inspiring than the view from many interstate rest stops. And Iwo Jima protrudes unimpressively from an oceanic reminder of the insignificance of everything."

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