Apr. 24, 2014

Elegy for a Walnut Tree

by W. S. Merwin

Old friend now there is no one alive
who remembers when you were young
it was high summer when I first saw you
in the blaze of day most of my life ago
with the dry grass whispering in your shade
and already you had lived through wars
and echoes of wars around your silence
through days of parting and seasons of absence
with the house emptying as the years went their way
until it was home to bats and swallows
and still when spring climbed toward summer
you opened once more the curled sleeping fingers
of newborn leaves as though nothing had happened
you and the seasons spoke the same language
and all these years I have looked through your limbs
to the river below and the roofs and the night
and you were the way I saw the world

"Elegy for a Walnut Tree" by W.S. Merwin, from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1895, Joshua Slocum set sail on a trip around the world (books by this author). Growing up in Nova Scotia, Slocum longed for a life at sea, but his father disapproved. After several attempts to run away from home, the boy finally left home for good when he was 16, signing on as a seaman on a merchant ship bound for Dublin. A few years later, he settled in San Francisco and began a career as a sea captain.

When Slocum was 51, he was working in a Boston shipyard. He hadn't captained a ship for a few years, and his services were not in high demand. When a friend gave him a run-down oyster boat, he decided to attempt a solo circumnavigation. He rebuilt the sloop, called Spray, and, when the weather was favorable, set sail from Boston. He used a navigation method called "dead reckoning," which involves determining one's position based on estimating the time and speed the boat has traveled since its previous position. During a 2,000-mile course across the Pacific Ocean, he never touched the helm once, steering instead by using the sails. He sailed 46,000 miles, returning to Newport, Rhode Island, a little over three years later. The Spanish-American War had just broken out not long before he returned, and even though he was the first person to sail around the world single-handedly, no one really paid much attention to him until after the war ended.

In 1900, Slocum published a book about his journey, called Sailing Alone Around the World. He'd arranged the book deal before he set off, and his publisher made sure he had a well-stocked library aboard. The book was well received, and he made enough money to buy a farm, but he wasn't happy on land. In 1909, en route to the West Indies, he was lost at sea.

It's the birthday of mystery writer Sue Grafton (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1940. Grafton is best known for the Alphabet Series of novels, beginning with A is for Alibi in 1982. W is for Wasted was published last year (2013). The novels feature Kinsey Millhone, a slightly eccentric private eye who was orphaned at the age of five. Grafton has said of her heroine, "Kinsey is my alter ego — the person I might have been had I not married young and had children." In Kinsey and Me (2013), Grafton writes: "While our biographies are different, our sensibilities are the same ... I think of us as one soul in two bodies and she got the good one ... It amused me that I invented someone who has gone on to support me. It amuses her, I'm sure, that she will live in this world long after I'm gone."

It's the birthday of novelist, literary critic, and the first U.S. poet laureate Robert Penn Warren (books by this author). Born in Guthrie, Kentucky, in 1905, he is best known for his novel All the King's Men (1947), for which he was awarded his first Pulitzer Prize; he also won that prize twice for poetry, in 1957 and 1979, and is the only person to win the award in both fiction and poetry.

Today is the birthday of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (books by this author), born in London in 1815. Trollope wrote 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few travel books. He created the fictional county of Barsetshire, and set several novels there. His most famous book, The Way We Live Now (1875), is a scathing 100-chapter satire of English greed. He was, and remains, one of England's most popular authors.

On this day in 1916, the Easter Rising began in Dublin, with the aim of ending British rule and creating the Irish Republic. It came to be known as the Poets' Rebellion because many of its leaders were poets, teachers, or men of letters. Schoolteacher Patrick Pearse and Socialist leader James Connolly called for supporters of the Republic to gather at Dublin's General Post Office on Easter Monday, bearing whatever weapons they could find. Members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, about 1,200 in number, turned out, but most citizens of Dublin were unprepared for, some even unaware of, the uprising.

The uprising itself was, by many conventional measures, a failure: Poorly planned and lacking solid support, it was quashed after a week, and its leaders hastily executed for treason. But as George Bernard Shaw wrote in The New York Times the following month: "It is absolutely impossible to slaughter a man in this position without making him a martyr and a hero, even though the day before the rising he may have been only a minor poet. ... The military authorities and the British Government must have known they were canonizing their prisoners." Outrage over the executions resulted in a wave of nationalism among the Irish, many of whom had previously been ambivalent about an Irish Republic, and galvanized the movement. The Republic of Ireland achieved independence from Great Britain five years later.

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