Jun. 27, 2014

Loons Mating

by David Wagoner

Their necks and their dark heads lifted into a dawn
Blurred smooth by mist, the loons
Beside each other are swimming slowly
In charmed circles, their bodies stretched under water
Through ripples quivering and sweeping apart
The gray sky now held close by the lake's mercurial threshold
Whose face and underface they share
In wheeling and diving tandem, rising together
To swell their breasts like swans, to go breasting forward
With beaks turned down and in, near shore,
Out of sight behind a windbreak of birch and alder,
And now the haunted uprisen wailing call,
And again, and now the beautiful sane laughter.

"Loons Mating" by David Wagoner from Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. © University of Illinois Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Alice McDermott (books by this author), born in Brooklyn in 1953. She grew up on Long Island, part of an Irish Catholic family. She is still a practicing Catholic, and she often writes about that faith in her novels. When she first started publishing her books, she got the impression that interviewers were judging her for her religious beliefs; she said she could almost hear them thinking, "Oh, I thought you were an intellectual. Well, I guess not." But now, she says, "it's getting a little bit more hip to be Catholic. [...] For me, having characters who are part of a faith then allows me to talk about how that faith either works or fails them without having to attack the institution."

McDermott has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for three of her books so far: That Night (1987), At Weddings and Wakes (1992), and After This (2006). Her 1998 novel Charming Billy won the National Book Award.

Her most recent novel, Someone (2013), was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. It's the story of an Irish-American girl named Marie whose life is as unremarkable as the book's title. The novel is set in the Brooklyn of McDermott's parents' generation, a Brooklyn before World War II that, she suspects, is largely fictitious. "The Brooklyn of that era," she told The New Yorker, "has always appeared to me as something of an enchanted isle [...] Setting a story there — not in the literal, geographical Brooklyn but in the one of memory, of romanticized recollection — is my way of visiting a place that I suspect never really existed."

It's the birthday of poet Lucille Clifton (books by this author), born in Depew, New York (1936). She grew up without much money, and no car, and she wrote a poem about how her father walked 12 miles to Buffalo to order the first dining room set ever owned by a black family in Depew. Her mother wrote poems, but her father disapproved and made his wife burn them, which made Lucille all the more determined to become a poet. She started to write poetry when she was 12, and she won a full scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she was friends and classmates with Amiri Baraka. She transferred to Fredonia State Teachers College, and there she met her husband, and they got married and had six children. And while she was raising kids, she published her first book, Good Times (1969). It was named one of the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, and she went on to publish many books of poetry, including An Ordinary Woman (1974) and Blessing the Boats (2000), as well as almost 20 books for children.

The untitled opening poem in Good Times begins, "in the inner city / or like we call it / home / we think a lot about uptown / and the silent nights / and the houses straight as dead men / and the pastel lights / and we hang on to our no place / happy to be alive."

It's the birthday of activist Helen Keller (books by this author), born in Tuscumbia, Alabama (1880). The story of her childhood is well-known: how as a toddler she became sick with an illness that left her both blind and deaf, and how she became a difficult child, until her 20-year-old teacher, Anne Sullivan, managed to communicate the letters for "water" while running water from the pump on the little girl's hand. It was a breakthrough, and on that day alone, Keller learned 30 words.

She was very bright, and went on to Radcliffe College. By the time she was a teenager, her story had made Keller a celebrity. One of her admirers was Mark Twain. Twain met Keller when she was just 14, and they remained friends throughout his life. He said, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Helen Keller and Napoleon Bonaparte."

Keller became a popular lecturer. She began sharing her story and advocating for others with disabilities, but became a radical activist along the way. She joined the Socialist Party of Massachusetts in 1909, when she was 29, and then the Industrial Workers of the World. She supported Communist Russia and hung a red flag over her desk. The FBI opened a file on her. She advocated for women's suffrage and for access to birth control. She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Helen Keller died in 1968, at the age of 87.

On this day in 1844, Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Latter-day Saints movement, was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. Born in Sharon, Vermont, in 1805, Smith reported he had been visited by an angel named Moroni in 1823. Moroni directed him to a buried cache of gold plates on which were written the history of the Israelites. He retrieved these and translated them with the help of two seer stones that were with them, and so wrote the Book of Mormon, on which he based a new sect of Christianity. He and his followers moved west in 1831, headed to Missouri to found a "New Zion"; on the way, they passed through Kirtland, Ohio, where they doubled the size of their church after converting about a hundred people. Smith declared Kirtland the "eastern boundary of New Jerusalem," calling all the Saints to meet him there.

Smith and his followers stayed in Kirtland for eight years. During this time, he scouted Missouri for a site for New Zion, which he believed he found in Jackson County. The locals weren't having any of it, though, and they grew resentful, eventually forming mobs and attacking the Mormon settlements. Smith and his followers were forcibly expelled from Jackson County in 1833. They set their sights on Far West, Missouri, in 1838, but relations with the non-Mormons in the community grew increasingly contentious and resulted in the Mormon War of 1838. Smith was imprisoned and nearly executed for treason, but he escaped by bribing the sheriff, and the group moved on to Illinois in 1839, settling in the town of Commerce, which they renamed Nauvoo.

Smith and the Mormons presented themselves as refugees and oppressed minorities to their new neighbors in Illinois, but eventually they ran into trouble, and public opinion had turned against them by 1842. In 1843, Smith petitioned Congress to name Nauvoo an independent territory, and also announced himself as a third-party candidate for president of the United States. When he ordered the destruction of the facilities of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that had accused him of practicing polygamy and trying to get himself anointed as king of a theocracy, things got heated. He declared martial law, and the governor called for a trial. Smith was arrested and jailed in Carthage, Illinois. Smith reportedly said: "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer's morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me — he was murdered in cold blood." Two hundred men, their faces painted black with gunpowder, broke into the jail and shot Smith and his brother Hyrum to death.

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