Mar. 27, 2014


by Dana Gioia

The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

And one word transforms it into something less or other—
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always—
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

"Words" by Dana Gioia from Interrogations at Noon. © Graywolf Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of French novelist and poet Henri Murger (books by this author), born in Paris (1822). He's most famous for his book Scènes de la vie bohème (1851), a fictionalized version of his experiences as an impoverished writer living in the Latin Quarter of Paris's Left Bank. It's an area filled with universities and cafés and known for its intellectual life, and Murger playfully romanticized his starving-artist-living-in-a-Paris-attic bohemian lifestyle. And he also wrote about his friends, who called themselves "the water drinkers" because they could not afford to buy wine.

At first, he published these sketches of his bohemian life in literary magazines, but they didn't really attract that much attention. But then a young ambitious French playwright named Théodore Barrière asked Murger if he could do a play based on his work. Murger agreed and worked on it with him, and the play was a huge hit in Paris. People wanted to hear more of Murger's life. So he compiled those short stories he'd published earlier in literary magazines, added an introductory chapter and some closing ones, wrote up a few segue passages to make the tale flow better, and also a little treatise on what it means to be "bohemian" — and he called it a novel, which he published in 1851.

It became the basis for Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème (1896), one of the most famous operas of all time. The character of Rudolphe (or Rudolfo in Puccini's opera) is based on Murger himself. Besides Puccini's opera, there are a number of other works that take up Murger's theme, including another opera called La Bohème (1897) by an Italian opera composer, Ruggero Leoncavallo, a number of films, and even the musicals Rent (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001).

On this date in 1998, the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Viagra to fight male impotence. The drug was made by Pfizer, and was originally studied as a treatment for high blood pressure and chest pain. When researchers began clinical trials on volunteers, the results were disappointing; it didn't seem to do much to combat heart problems. However, many of the study participants reported an unforeseen side effect: increased erections, even days after they took the pill. Researchers switched focus from angina to erectile dysfunction. Within weeks of the drug's approval by the FDA, doctors had written more than 40,000 Viagra prescriptions. By 2001, the company was selling a billion dollars worth of the little blue pills a year, and it's one of the biggest-selling drugs Pfizer has ever produced. Other uses of the drug are being studied. For instance, it extends the life of cut flowers in the vase, keeping them from drooping for more than a week. And it's been shown to help hamsters recover from jet lag.

On this date in 1915, the woman known as "Typhoid Mary" was put into quarantine in a cottage in the Bronx. Her name was Mary Mallon, and she worked as a cook in various wealthy households around New York City. Every household she worked in seemed to suffer an outbreak of typhoid fever. A doctor named George Soper noticed this strange pattern of outbreaks among the wealthy. He figured out they had all hired the same cook, finally tracked her down, and questioned her. She didn't take it well; she swore at him, and threatened him with a meat cleaver when he asked her to provide a stool sample. He finally called in the police and had her arrested. They took urine and stool samples by force, and discovered that she was a healthy carrier of typhoid. They released her on the condition that she would give up working as a cook, but once she was free, she changed her name and went back to cooking. Five years later, they finally tracked her down on Long Island, and she was put in quarantine for the rest of her life. She died of pneumonia in 1938.

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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