May 14, 2014

At the Very Lengthy Meeting

by Kevin McCaffrey

At the very lengthy meeting
I actually felt my soul leave my body
and rush toward the ceiling—
and fly around the walls and flare
toward daylight, toward the windows—
to throw silently its impetuous emptiness
against the glass in vain.
It could not go anywhere, the clear moth.

Then it lay on the rug, not exhausted
but bored and so inert that it almost—
though nothing—
took on a hue, stained with all the breaths
and words and thoughts that filled the room:
the yellow-green color of old teeth.

"At the Very Lengthy Meeting" by Kevin McCaffrey from Laughing Cult. © Four Winds Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1796 that a British physician named Edward Jenner administered a vaccine to prevent smallpox; it was considered the first successful vaccination. Smallpox was a terrible disease, with a high mortality rate — between 20% and 60%, and much higher for children. Those who did survive were often left blind or disfigured with terrible scars. Smallpox had been around for thousands of years — lesions were found on Egyptian mummies from 1,500 BCE, and it is mentioned in ancient Chinese and Indian writings. Smallpox spread across the world through trade, slavery, and conquest. It weakened the great empires of the Aztecs, Incas, and Romans. In 18th-century England, it was known as "the speckled monster," and responsible for the deaths of about 400,000 people each year.

On this date in 1804, the first overland expedition across the North American continent set out from St. Louis, under the leadership of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark. The expedition had been ordered by President Thomas Jefferson in order to get a sense of the land recently acquired from France through the Louisiana Purchase. The expedition would take Louis and Clark, and about 40 others, up the Missouri River, through the Dakotas and Montana, across the Continental Divide, and eventually down to the mouth of the Columbia River. At the request of President Jefferson, Lewis and Clark kept detailed journals, in which they kept a record of their adventures, and of the plants and animals they encountered on their way. They listed 178 plants and 122 animals — many, like the lynx and the prairie dog, now at risk of extinction.

It was on this day in 1925 that Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway was published (books by this author). It's about a woman named Clarissa Dalloway who is hosting a party in London. The entire novel is set on a single day in June, and it features stream-of-consciousness storytelling techniques. Virginia Woolf was a big fan of James Joyce's Ulysses, published three years prior, also set on a single day in June and featuring stream-of-consciousness storytelling techniques.

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