Aug. 4, 2014

What Gorgeous Thing

by Mary Oliver

The text for this poem is not available online.

"What Gorgeous Thing" by Mary Oliver, from Blue Horses. © Published by Penguin Press, 2014. Used by permission of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency (buy now)

It was on this day in 1944 that 15-year-old diarist Anne Frank (books by this author) was arrested in Amsterdam, along with her family, four other Jewish people living in hiding with the Franks, and two Dutch helpers.

Anne and the others were living in a secret space in the warehouse where her father's company had its offices. Anne's father, Otto Frank, ran a company that sold pectin for jam, and herbs and spices for meats. After the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Jews were no longer allowed to own businesses, so Otto transferred his business to his non-Jewish employees. As the Nazi threat became more extreme, the Franks prepared a hiding spot, smuggling in furniture and personal belongings. They went into hiding when Anne's sister, Margot, received a notice to report to a German work camp. They walked to the hiding place in the pouring rain, wearing as much of their clothing as possible.

Anne called their hiding place "the Secret Annex." The four Franks shared it with the family of Otto's business partner, and with a dentist. There were about 500 square feet of livable space. Anne wrote: "The Annex is an ideal place to hide in. It may be damp and lopsided, but there's probably not a more comfortable hiding place in all of Amsterdam. No, in all of Holland." At first everything went well, but soon the cramped conditions led to fights and resentments between the eight inhabitants. Everyone was tense because they had to be silent all day to make sure that none of the warehouse workers heard them. They couldn't flush the toilet or open windows. They were terrified of being discovered.

Their survival depended on four of Otto's workers who had agreed to help hide them. The helpers brought them food nearly every day, as well as news, library books, study materials, magazines, clothes, and news from the outside world. The warehouse manager built a swinging bookcase to conceal the door to the annex.

Anne and her seven companions spent more than two years living in the Secret Annex. Through it all, Anne kept a diary. She had been given the diary for her 13th birthday, just a few weeks before the Franks went into hiding. In July of 1943, Anne wrote about what everyone wanted most from the outside world: "Margot and Mr. Van Pels wish, above all else, to have a hot bath filled to the brim, which they can lie in for more than half an hour. Mrs. Van Pels would like a cake, Pfeffer can think of nothing but seeing his Charlotte, and Mother is dying for a cup of real coffee. Father would like to visit Mr. Voskuijl, Peter would go downtown, and as for me, I'd be so overjoyed I wouldn't know where to begin. Most of all I long to have a home of our own, to be able to move around freely and have someone help me with my homework again, at last. In other words, to go back to school!"

On this day in 1944, acting on a tip from an anonymous Dutch caller, the Gestapo stormed into the Secret Annex and arrested all eight inhabitants, as well as two of the men who were helping them. After the arrest, two remaining helpers sneaked upstairs and found a photo album and Anne's diary; one of the helpers, Miep Gies, kept the diary, hoping to return it to Anne someday.

Anne and Margot were sent to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen, where both sisters died of typhus and malnutrition just weeks before the British liberated the camp. Of the eight people who hid in the Secret Annex, only Otto survived the concentration camps, as did the two helpers. When he returned to Amsterdam, he knew that his wife had died but hoped his daughters had survived. He searched for months, but was finally given the official notice that they had died. When she heard that Anne was dead, Miep Gies gave her diary to Otto. He struggled to find a publisher but kept trying because Anne had written that she wanted to publish her diary. Finally, in June of 1947, The Secret Annex was published; its English translation was called Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1952). It has sold more than 30 million copies.

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in Sussex, England (1792). Although he died before the age of 30, many of his poems are considered masterpieces, including "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and "Prometheus Unbound."

Percy Shelley said, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

And, "Chameleons feed on light and air: Poets' food is love and fame."

And he wrote:
"Nothing in the world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle —
Why not I with thine?"

It's the birthday of Knut Hamsun (books by this author), born in Lom, Norway (1859). He was considered one of the great Scandinavian novelists of all time. He had almost no formal schooling. As a boy he became an indentured servant to his uncle. He escaped at the age of 14, went to the United States, and found a job as a streetcar operator in Chicago. He was very poor. He wore newspapers under his clothes for warmth in the Chicago winter. After returning to Norway, wrote his early novels — ones that made him famous, including Hunger in 1890 and Mysteries in 1892.

It's the birthday of the poet and teacher Robert Hayden (books by this author), born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan (1913), he was given up for adoption as a child and raised by a foster family. He was a skinny and severely nearsighted boy and was often ostracized by the other children of "Paradise Valley," the Detroit ghetto where he grew up, and which served as the backdrop to much of his writing. He found comfort in the world of books and went on to the city college, before taking a job in 1936 with the Federal Writers' Project. He researched black history and folk culture, gaining knowledge that would inform his work for the rest of his career. In 1940, he published his first collection of poetry, Heart-Shape in the Dust, still heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. He quickly mastered traditional form, and his poetry later become known for its use of multiple voices and the vernacular of black life, such as in his best-known poem, "Middle Passage," about the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad. In 1946, he took a job at Fisk University, where he would teach for the next 23 years. In 1985, he was the first African-American to be awarded the post of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.

He said, "Art is not an escape, but a way of finding order in chaos, a way of confronting life."

It's the birthday of President Barack Obama (books by this author), born in Honolulu, Hawaii (1961). He's the author of the New York Times best-selling books Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006).

It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1901), in a poor section of town known as "The Battlefield." When he was six years old, Louis formed a vocal quartet with three other neighborhood boys and performed on street corners for tips. The Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Louis to work on their junk wagon. Louis purchased his first cornet with money the family lent him.

In 1913, he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that's where he learned to play the cornet. Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925–1928) were among the first 50 items preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

He's the author of the memoirs Swing That Music (1936) and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954).

When asked to define jazz, he said: "Man, if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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