Apr. 6, 2014

Surprised by Evening

by Robert Bly

There is unknown dust that is near us,
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill,
Trees full of birds that we have never seen,
Nets drawn down with dark fish.

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there,
It has come through the nets of the stars,
Through the tissues of the grass,
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end, we think:
We have hair that seems born for the daylight;
But, at last, the quiet waters of the night will rise,
And our skin shall see far off, as it does underwater.

"Surprised by Evening" by Robert Bly from Eating the Honey of Words. © Harper Collins, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Shoshone woman Sacajawea, born in Idaho (sometime around 1789). She was kidnapped at age 10 by the Hidatsa tribe, sold into slavery, and bought by a French-Canadian trapper who made her one of his two wives. When Lewis and Clark hired the trapper to guide them to the Pacific, Sacajawea — a teenager with her two-month-old baby on her back — was part of the package. She was the only woman to accompany the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back.

Officially she acted as interpreter, since she could speak half a dozen Indian languages. But she also knew which plants were edible, and she saved the explorers' records when their boat overturned. In his notes, William Clark pointed out that tribes were inclined to believe that their party was friendly when they saw Sacajawea because a war party would never travel with a woman, especially one with a baby.

When the trip was over, Sacajawea received nothing. Her trapper husband got $500.33 and 320 acres of land. She died on December 22, 1812, of a "putrid fever," according to Clark's records. She was 23. Eight months later, Clark legally adopted her two children — the boy who had been a baby on the expedition, Jean Baptiste, and an infant daughter, Lisette.

It's the birthday of country songwriter and singer Merle Haggard, born in Bakersfield, California (1937). The first song he wrote was "Branded Man," about the life of an ex-con. He was still on parole when he wrote it.

His parents were Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, and Haggard grew up in a house made from a railroad boxcar. As a young man, he wrote bad checks, stole cars, hopped trains, and was in and out of reform schools and jails. Eventually, he spent 27 months in San Quentin prison, which was such a bad experience he decided he'd never go back. He became a model prisoner, and joined the prison's country music band, and saw Johnny Cash perform there. Later, when he met Johnny Cash in person, Johnny said he didn't remember Merle being in the show with him, and Merle had to tell him it was because he was in the prison audience.

Today, Haggard has released more than 600 songs, 40 of which were No. 1 hits.

Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned his time at San Quentin. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted him into the California Hall of Fame. Vanity Fair interviewed him to ask if he had any advice for the troubled actress Lindsay Lohan on how to handle prison.

Haggard said: "She has to be honest, and she has to let the other prisoners know that she doesn't feel like she's any better than they are. If I told somebody I was going to meet them on a Tuesday, I met 'em. I learned that it's better to be honest, because you can't get away from your lie."

Oscar Wilde (books by this author) was arrested for indecent acts on this date in 1895. He had been having an affair with the son of John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess had a warrant sworn out for Wilde's arrest. Wilde's friends implored him to escape to France, but Wilde said, "The train has gone. It's too late." He was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel, and, after a lengthy trial, was sentenced to two years' hard labor. During his imprisonment, he wrote a long letter to his former lover, Alfred Douglas, which was later published as De Profundis (1895). In it, he wrote: "When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?"

Upon his release — bankrupt and in ill health — he moved to Paris, where he died in poverty three years later.

The United States entered World War I on this date in 1917. The war had been going on in Europe for three years when Germany started attacking American merchant ships. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2, and it passed almost unanimously. Factories sprang up to make the goods for the war effort, people moved to the cities from rural areas to take jobs in the factories, and women went to work in record numbers, helping to advance the women's suffrage movement.

World War I spawned the disillusioned realists of the "Lost Generation": Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Dos Passos, and Faulkner.

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