Grabbed!

FROM News Of A Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez

SHE LOOKED OVERher shoulder before getting into the car to be sure no one was following her. It was 7:05 in the evening in Bogota. It had been dark for an hour, the Parque Nacional was not well lit, and the silhouettes of leafless trees against a sad, overcast sky seemed ghostly, but nothing appeared to be threatening. Despite her position, Maruja sat behind the driver because she always thought it was the most comfortable seat. Beatriz climbed in through the other door and sat to her right. They were almost an hour behind in their daily schedule, and both women looked tired after a soporific afternoon of three executive meetings—Maruja in particular, who had given a party the night before and had slept for only three hours. She stretched out her tired legs, closed her eyes as she leaned her head against the back of the seat, and gave the usual order:

“Please take us home.”

As they did every day, they sometimes took one route, sometimes another, as much for reasons of security as because of traffic jams. The Renault 21 was new and comfortable, and the chauffeur drove with caution and skill. The best alternative that night was Avenida Circunvalar heading north. They had three green lights, and evening traffic was lighter than usual. Even on the worst days it took only half an hour to drive from the office to Maruja’s house, at No. 84A-42 Transversal Tercera, and then the driver would take Beatriz to her house, some seven blocks away.

Maruja came from a family of well-known intellectuals that included several generations of reporters. She herself was an award-winning journalist. For the past two months she had been the director of FOCINE, the state-run enterprise for the promotion of the film industry. Beatriz, Maruja’s sister-in-law and personal assistant, had been a physical therapist for many years but had decided on a change of pace for a while. Her major responsibility at FOCINE was attending to everything related to the press. Neither woman had any specific reason to be afraid, but since August, when the drug traffickers began an unpredictable series of abductions of journalists, Maruja had acquired the almost unconscious habit of looking over her shoulder.

Her suspicion was on target. Though the Parque Nacional had seemed deserted when she looked behind her before getting into the car, eight men were following her. One was at the wheel of a dark blue Mercedes 190 that had phony Bogota plates and was parked across the street. Another was in the driver’s seat of a stolen yellow cab. Four of them were wearing jeans, sneakers, and leather jackets and strolling in the shadows of the park. The seventh, tall and well-dressed in a light-weight suit, carried a briefcase, which completed the picture of a young executive. From a small corner café half a block away, the eighth man, the one responsible for the operation, observed the first real performance of an action whose intensive, meticulous rehearsals had begun twenty-one days earlier.

The cab and the Mercedes followed Maruja’s automobile, keeping a close distance just as they had been doing since the previous Monday to determine her usual routes. After about twenty minutes the three cars turned right onto Calle 82, less than two hundred meters from the unfaced brick building where Maruja lived with her husband and one of her children. They had just begun to drive up the steep slope of the street, when the yellow cab passed Maruja’s car, hemmed it in along the left-hand curb, and forced the driver to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. At almost the same time, the Mercedes stopped behind the Renault, making it impossible to back up.

Three men got out of the cab and with resolute strides approached Maruja’s car. The tall, well-dressed one carried a strange weapon that looked to Maruja like a sawed-off shotgun with a barrel as long and thick as a telescope. It was, in fact, a 9mm Mini-Uzi equipped with a silencer and capable of firing either single shots or fifteen rounds per second. The other two were armed with submachine guns and pistols. What Maruja and Beatriz could not see were the three men getting out of the Mercedes that had pulled in behind them.

They acted with so much coordination and speed that Maruja and Beatriz could remember only isolated fragments of the scant two minutes of the assault. With professional skill, five men surrounded the car and at the same time dealt with its three occupants. The sixth watched the street, holding his submachine gun at the ready. Maruja’s fears had been realized.

“Drive, Angel,” she shouted to the driver. “Go up on the sidewalk, whatever, but drive.”

Angel was paralyzed, though with the cab in front of him and the Mercedes behind, he had no room to get away in any case. Fearing the men would begin shooting, Maruja clutched at her handbag as if it were a life preserver, crouched down behind the driver’s seat, and shouted to Beatriz:

“Get down on the floor!”

“The hell with that,” Beatriz whispered. “On the floor they’ll kill us.”
She was trembling but determined. Certain it was only a holdup, she pulled the two rings off her right hand and tossed them out the window, thinking: “Let them earn it.” But she did not have time to take off the two on her left hand. Maruja, curled into a ball behind the seat, did not even remember that she was wearing a diamond and emerald ring and a pair of matching earrings.

Two men opened Maruja’s door and another two opened Beatriz’s. The fifth shot the driver in the head through the glass, and the silencer made it sound no louder than a sigh. Then he opened the door, pulled him out, and shot him three more times as he lay on the ground. It was another man’s destiny: Angel María Roa had been Maruja’s driver for only three days, and for the first time he was displaying his new dignity with the dark suit, starched shirt, and black tie worn by the chauffeurs who drove government ministers. His predecessor, who had retired the week before, had been FOCINE’s regular driver for ten years.

Maruja did not learn of the assault on the chauffeur until much later. From her hiding place she heard only the sudden noise of breaking glass and then a peremptory shout just above her head: “You’re the one we want, Señora. Get out!” An iron hand grasped her arm and dragged her out of the car. She resisted as much as she could, fell, scraped her leg, but the two men picked her up and carried her bodily to the car behind the Renault. They did not notice that Maruja was still clutching her handbag.

Beatriz, who had long, hard nails and good military training, confronted the boy who tried to pull her from the car. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed. He gave a start, and Beatriz realized he was just as nervous as she, and capable of anything. She changed her tone.
“I’ll get out by myself,” she said. “Just tell me what to do.”
The boy pointed to the cab.

“Into that car and down on the floor,” he said. “Move!” The doors were open, the motor running, the driver motionless in his seat. Beatriz lay down in the back. Her kidnapper covered her with his jacket and sat down, resting his feet on her. Two more men got in: one next to the driver, the other in back. The driver waited for the simultaneous thud of both doors, then sped away, heading north on Avenida Circunvalar. That was when Beatriz realized she had left her bag on the seat of the Renault, but it was too late. More than fear and discomfort, what she found intolerable was the ammonia stink of the jacket.

They had put Maruja into the Mercedes, which had driven off a minute earlier, following a different route. They had her sit in the middle of the back seat, with a man on either side. The one on the left forced Maruja’s head against his knees, in a position so uncomfortable she had difficulty breathing. The man beside the driver communicated with the other car by means of an antiquated two-way radio. Maruja’s consternation was heightened because she could not tell which vehicle she was in—she had not seen the Mercedes stop behind her car—but she did know it was comfortable and new, and perhaps bulletproof, since the street noises sounded muted, like the whisper of rain. She could not breathe, her heart pounded, and she began to feel as if she were suffocating. The man next to the driver, who seemed to be in charge, became aware of her agitation and tried to reassure her.

“Take it easy,” he said, over his shoulder. “We only want you to deliver a message. You’ll be home in a couple of hours. But if you move there’ll be trouble, so just take it easy.”

The one who held her head on his knees also tried to reassure her. Maruja took a deep breath, exhaled very slowly through her mouth, and began to regain her composure. After a few blocks the situation changed because the car ran into a traffic jam on a steep incline. The man on the two-way radio started to shout impossible orders that the driver of the other car could not carry out. Several ambulances were caught in traffic somewhere along the highway, and the din of sirens and earsplitting horns was maddening even for someone with steady nerves. And for the moment, at least, that did not describe the “kidnappers. The driver was so agitated as he tried to make his way through traffic that he hit a taxi. It was no more than a tap, but the cab driver shouted something that made them even more nervous. The man with the two-way radio ordered him to move no matter what, and the car drove over sidewalks and through empty lots.

When they were free of traffic, they were still going uphill. Maruja had the impression they were heading toward La Calera, a hill that tended to be very crowded at that hour. Then she remembered some cardamom seeds, a natural tranquilizer, in her jacket pocket, and asked her captors to let her chew a few. The man on her right helped her look for them, and this was when he noticed she was still holding her handbag. They took it away but gave her the cardamom. Maruja tried to get a good look at the kidnappers, but the light was too dim. She dared to ask a question: “Who are you people?” The man with the two-way radio answered in a quiet voice:

“We’re from the M-19.”

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 11:06 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A healthy hypochondriac in a cancer ward can cause a lot of resentment.
Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 10:27 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Tenderloin

FROM South Of Broad by Pat Conroy

Sunday falls upon us not as a day of rest but one of drowsy, melancholy, or, at best, enforced leisure. Since I was a child, God’s day has felt anxiety-fraught; the Sunday afternoon willies always leave a handprint on the middle of my stomach. I go to an early Mass and get back to a household gathered around the breakfast table. Opening the Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, we turn to Herb Caen’s column and read his piece, “The Queen of Sheba.” He is as good as his word, and his whole column praises the heroic efforts of the sex goddess Sheba Poe to locate her twin brother, Trevor, who has disappeared into that stricken underground world of AIDS.

Sheba opens a huge package of circulars that had arrived from L.A., featuring a photograph of Trevor in his dazzling prime that touches me to the core. “I hired a Boy Scout troop to put these up all over town,” Sheba says. “It’s a beautiful photograph. He looks just like me, don’t you think?”

Outside the limo driver honks three times. “Murray is going to ride us over to Powell Street,” I say.

“Why don’t we just stay around here and get drunk by the pool?” Sheba asks. “I hate when the Toad makes us go on field trips.”

“It’ll be interesting,” I promise.

“What’s on Powell Street?” Fraser asks.

“A surprise,” I say, “but one I promise you’ll like.”

On Powell Street, Murray rolls his eyes when he hears I am forcing my friends to take a cable car ride through the city to Fisherman’s Wharf. I think there might be a mutiny among my friends, who groan as they depart the luxurious limo and join a crowd of camera-laden tourists awaiting the arrival of the next cable car. In the storming of the cable car, I barely make it onboard, grabbing on to a back railing and hanging on for sweet life. The crowd is high-spirited as our car labors up the hillside. When we reach the summit of Powell Street, I look out toward the white-capped bay alive with the pretty slippage of sailboats and yachts. But I feel an uncomfortable danger when I realize that I do not have enough room to change hands or find purchase with my dangling right foot on the step I balance on. It is only after we pass through Chinatown, which smells like wonton soup and soy sauce and egg rolls, and begin a headlong dive toward the bay, that I have fears of my bright idea of a cable car ride turning life-threatening.

In the middle of the steepest lunge back down the hill, with the cable still humming beneath the streets like some living thing, I hear a woman’s voice screaming out in fury. Even worse, I recognize the voice: “Get your goddamn hand out of my purse, you smelly son of a bitch!”

The crowd, the gripman, the conductor, and I all freeze. She screams again: “Are you deaf, you worthless bastard? I told you to get your goddamn hand out of my purse and drop my goddamn wallet. Quit pretending you don’t know who I’m talking to, bozo. Let me be more specific: get your goddamn black hand out of my purse. That narrow it down enough, asshole?”

Sheba Poe’s voice is as unmistakable as any in movie history—breathy, sultry, iconic, and, at this disturbing moment, unstrung. When the cable car reaches the next intersection, almost every rider leaps off, sprinting in all directions in helter-skelter flight from the drama Sheba has unleashed. The passengers who remain onboard have known one another since high school, except for the largest black man I’ve ever seen: wild-haired, frantic, six feet five inches tall, three hundred pounds.

“Little woman,” he says to Sheba, his voice gently controlled, considering the circumstances, “you gonna get yourself hurt if you don’t hush your mouth and lower your voice. I can’t get my hand out of your purse because you got it so tight around my wrist.”

“Let go of my goddamned wallet and I’ll loosen the purse, you smelly black son of a bitch.”

“I’d lose the references to smell and color,” Molly suggests in a soft Charleston accent.

“Uh-oh,” the big man says, emboldened. “I believe I found me some cracker-girls a long way from home. You cracker-girls could get hurt when I pull a knife out of my pocket, which is what I’m about to do to improve Miss Goldilocks’s manners.”

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 10:23 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Toomey’s Diner

Sundays at dawn were whispers and silent
pissing on the inside of the privy bowl.
If belt buckles merely clicked, zippers
crept shut, and the heels of heavy shoes
only thudded together muffled in our hands,
mother slept on as we crept out the door.

Sunday mornings my face seemed to melt
in ripples of chrome circling high stools
at the bar of Toomey’s Diner. The air
inside was thick with breath and smokes
as I spun between my father and brother
waiting for our *flapjacks all around*.
I saw the soles of my feet turned upside
down in the stools’ silvery pedestals
and knew enough to spin without a squeak.

So this was the world outside. Red leather
to sit on, red formica edged in chrome
where my elbows fit, red menus studded
with paper clips. Signs said Special Today.
This was the stuff of weekday dreams. A small
jukebox at every table, rice to keep
the salt dry, toothpicks, a great pyramid
of cereal boxes hiding the cook.
Sunday was sizzling grease and apple juice
glowing pink, then blue in the sudden shift
of neon. Sunday laughter gave off such
heat that walls burst with sweat.

When the day came apart, I always had
the relative silence of knives and forks
on plates, the delicate lids of syrup holders
snapping shut, coffee slurped from steaming mugs,
coins on the counter, the sound of our bill
skewered by Toomey as we turned to leave.

—Floyd Skloot

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Summer Rain

My books I’d fain cast off, I cannot read,
‘Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large
Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,
And will not mind to hit their proper targe.

Plutarch was good, and so was Homer too,
Our Shakespeare’s life were rich to live again,
What Plutarch read, that was not good nor true,
Nor Shakespeare’s books, unless his books were men.

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,
If juster battles are enacted now
Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?

Bid Homer wait till I the issue learn,
If red or black the gods will favor most,
Or yonder Ajax will the phalanx turn,
Struggling to heave some rock against the host.

Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
For now I’ve business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower—
I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

This bed of herd’s grass and wild oats was spread
Last year with nicer skill than monarchs use.
A clover tuft is pillow for my head,
And violets quite overtop my shoes.

And now the cordial clouds have shut all in,
And gently swells the wind to say all’s well;
The scattered drops are falling fast and thin,
Some in the pool, some in the flower-bell.

I am well drenched upon my bed of oats;
But see that globe come rolling down its stem,
Now like a lonely planet there it floats,
And now it sinks into my garment’s hem.

Drip drip the trees for all the country round,
And richness rare distills from every bough;
The wind alone it is makes every sound,
Shaking down crystals on the leaves below.

For shame the sun will never show himself,
Who could not with his beams e’er melt me so;
My dripping locks–they would become an elf,
Who in a beaded coat does gayly go.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 1:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Country Summer

Now the rich cherry, whose sleek wood,
And top with silver petals traced
Like a strict box its gems encased,
Has spilt from out that cunning lid,
All in an innocent green round,
Those melting rubies which it hid;
With moss ripe-strawberry-encrusted,
So birds get half, and minds lapse merry
To taste that deep-red, lark’s-bite berry,
And blackcap bloom is yellow-dusted.

The wren that thieved it in the eaves
A trailer of the rose could catch
To her poor droopy sloven thatch,
And side by side with the wren’s brood—
O lovely time of beggar’s luck—
Opens the quaint and hairy bud;
And full and golden is the yield
Of cows that never have to house,
But all night nibble under boughs,
Or cool their sides in the moist field.

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same; the wishing star,
Hesperus, kind and early born,
Is risen only finger-far;
All stars stand close in summer air,
And tremble, and look mild as amber;
When wicks are lighted in the chamber,
They are like stars which settled there.

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.
Yet thick the lazy dreams are born,
Another thought can come to mind,
But like the shivering of the wind,
Morning and evening in the corn.

—Léonie Adams

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 3:39 PM  Comments (3)  
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All those who oppose the plan I am about to present will signify by saying “I resign.”
Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 3:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Distant Promise

FROM Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

NOT a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green “ridgeway”– the Ickneild Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.

The boy had never before strayed so far north as this from the nestling hamlet in which he had been deposited by the carrier from a railway station southward, one dark evening some few months earlier, and till now he had had no suspicion that such a wide, flat, low-lying country lay so near at hand, under the very verge of his upland world. The whole northern semicircle between east and west, to a distance of forty or fifty miles, spread itself before him; a bluer, moister atmosphere, evidently, than that he breathed up here.

Not far from the road stood a weather-beaten old barn of reddish-grey brick and tile. It was known as the Brown House by the people of the locality. He was about to pass it when he perceived a ladder against the eaves; and the reflection that the higher he got, the further he could see, led Jude to stand and regard it. On the slope of the roof two men were repairing the tiling. He turned into the ridgeway and drew towards the barn.

When he had wistfully watched the workmen for some time he took courage, and ascended the ladder till he stood beside them.

“Well, my lad, and what may you want up here?~’

“I wanted to know where the city of Christminster is, if you please.”

“Christminster is out across there, by that clump. You can see it– at least you can on a clear day. Ah, no, you can’t now.”

The other tiler, glad of any kind of diversion from the monotony of his labour, had also turned to look towards the quarter designated. “You can’t often see it in weather like this,” he said. “The time I’ve noticed it is when the sun is going down in a blaze of flame, and it looks like–I don’t know what.”

“The heavenly Jerusalem,” suggested the serious urchin.

“Ay–though I should never ha’ thought of it myself…. But I can’t see no Christminster to-day.”

The boy strained his eyes also; yet neither could he see the far-off city. He descended from the barn, and abandoning Christminster with the versatility of his age he walked along the ridge-track, looking for any natural objects of interest that might lie in the banks thereabout. When he repassed the barn to go back to Marygreen he observed that the ladder was still in its place, but that the men had finished their day’s work and gone away.

It was waning towards evening; there was still a faint mist, but it had cleared a little except in the damper tracts of subjacent country and along the river-courses. He thought again of Christminster, and wished, since he had come two or three miles from his aunt’s house on purpose, that he could have seen for once this attractive city of which he had been told. But even if he waited here it was hardly likely that the air would clear before night. Yet he was loth to leave the spot, for the northern expanse became lost to view on retreating towards the village only a few hundred yards.

He ascended the ladder to have one more look at the point the men had designated, and perched himself on the highest rung, overlying the tiles. He might not be able to come so far as this for many days. Perhaps if he prayed, the wish to see Christminster might be forwarded. People said that, if you prayed, things sometimes came to you, even though they sometimes did not. He had read in a tract that a man who had begun to build a church, and had no money to finish it, knelt down and prayed, and the money came in by the next post. Another man tried the same experiment, and the money did not come; but he found afterwards that the breeches he knelt in were made by a wicked Jew. This was not discouraging, and turning on the ladder Jude knelt on the third rung, where, resting against those above it, he prayed that the mist might rise.

He then seated himself again, and waited. In the course of ten or fifteen minutes the thinning mist dissolved altogether from the northern horizon, as it had already done elsewhere, and about a quarter of an hour before the time of sunset the westward clouds parted, the sun’s position being partially uncovered, and the beams streaming out in visible lines between two bars of slaty cloud. The boy immediately looked back in the old direction.

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

The spectator gazed on and on till the windows and vanes lost their shine, going out almost suddenly like extinguished candles. The vague city became veiled in mist. Turning to the west, he saw that the sun had disappeared. The foreground of the scene had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimaeras.

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 2:40 PM  Comments (2)  
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The Casual Casualty

FROM The Little Regiment by Stephen Crane

The regiment trotted in double time along the street, and the colonel seemed to quarrel over the right of way with many artillery officers. Batteries were waiting in the mud, and the men of them, exasperated by the bustle of this ambitious infantry, shook their fists from saddle and caisson, exchanging all manner of taunts and jests. The slanted guns continued to look reflectively at the ground.

On the outskirts of the crumbled town a fringe of blue figures were firing into the fog. The regiment swung out into skirmish lines, and the fringe of blue figures departed, turning their backs and going joyfully around the flank.

The bullets began a low moan off toward a ridge which loomed faintly in the heavy mist. When the swift crescendo had reached its climax, the missiles zipped just overhead, as if piercing an invisible curtain. A battery on the hill was crashing with such tumult that it was as if the guns had quarrelled and had fallen pell-mell and snarling upon each other. The shells howled on their journey toward the town. From short-range distance there came a spatter of musketry, sweeping along an invisible line, and making faint sheets of orange light.

Some in the new skirmish lines were beginning to fire at various shadows discerned in the vapour, forms of men suddenly revealed by some humour of the laggard masses of clouds. The crackle of musketry began to dominate the purring of the hostile bullets. Dan, in the front rank, held his rifle poised, and looked into the fog keenly, coldly, with the air of a sportsman. His nerves were so steady that it was as if they had been drawn from his body, leaving him merely a muscular machine; but his numb heart was somehow beating to the pealing march of the fight.

The waving skirmish line went backward and forward, ran this way and that way. Men got lost in the fog, and men were found again. Once they got too close to the formidable ridge, and the thing burst out as if repulsing a general attack. Once another blue regiment was apprehended on the very edge of firing into them. Once a friendly battery began an elaborate and scientific process of extermination. Always as busy as brokers, the men slid here and there over the plain, fighting their foes, escaping from their friends, leaving a history of many movements in the wet yellow turf, cursing the atmosphere, blazing away every time they could identify the enemy.

In one mystic changing of the fog as if the fingers of spirits were drawing aside these draperies, a small group of the grey skirmishers, silent, statuesque, were suddenly disclosed to Dan and those about him. So vivid and near were they that there was something uncanny in the revelation.

There might have been a second of mutual staring. Then each rifle in each group was at the shoulder. As Dan’s glance flashed along the barrel of his weapon, the figure of a man suddenly loomed as if the musket had been a telescope. The short black beard, the slouch hat, the pose of the man as he sighted to shoot, made a quick picture in Dan’s mind. The same moment, it would seem, he pulled his own trigger, and the man, smitten, lurched forward, while his exploding rifle made a slanting crimson streak in the air, and the slouch hat fell before the body. The billows of the fog, governed by singular impulses, rolled between.

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 10:23 AM  Leave a Comment  
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After his first heart attack, Marquand did his best to face his threatened mortality with high spirit. Shortly after his return from the hospital, when one of his neighbors was visiting, John suddenly jumped out of bed. In his pajamas, he seized an antique sword from the wall, unsheathed it, and struck a John Barrymore pose. “Death,” he boomed, “thus do I defy you!”

Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 9:41 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Correspondences

In Nature’s temple living pillars rise,
And words are murmured none have understood,
And man must wander through a tangled wood
Of symbols watching him with friendly eyes.

As long-drawn echoes heard far-off and dim
Mingle to one deep sound and fade away;
Vast as the night and brilliant as the day,
Colour and sound and perfume speak to him.

Some perfumes are as fragrant as a child,
Sweet as the sound of hautboys, meadow-green;
Others, corrupted, rich, exultant, wild,

Have all the expansion of things infinite:
As amber, incense, musk, and benzoin,
Which sing the sense’s and the soul’s delight.

—Charles Baudelaire

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 11:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Hail to the sun god! He sure is a fun god! Ra! Ra! Ra!

Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 6:56 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Letter

What is she writing? Watch her now,
How fast her fingers move !
How eagerly her youthful brow
Is bent in thought above !
Her long curls, drooping, shade the light,
She puts them quick aside,
Nor knows, that band of crystals bright,
Her hasty touch untied.
It slips adown her silken dress,
Falls glittering at her feet;
Unmarked it falls, for she no less
Pursues her labour sweet.

The very loveliest hour that shines,
Is in that deep blue sky;
The golden sun of June declines,
It has not caught her eye.
The cheerful lawn, and unclosed gate,
The white road, far away,
In vain for her light footsteps wait,
She comes not forth to-day.
There is an open door of glass
Close by that lady’s chair,
From thence, to slopes of mossy grass,
Descends a marble stair.

Tall plants of bright and spicy bloom
Around the threshold grow;
Their leaves and blossoms shade the room,
From that sun’s deepening glow.
Why does she not a moment glance
Between the clustering flowers,
And mark in heaven the radiant dance
Of evening’s rosy hours ?
O look again ! Still fixed her eye,
Unsmiling, earnest, still,
And fast her pen and fingers fly,
Urged by her eager will.

Her soul is in th’ absorbing task;
To whom, then, doth she write ?
Nay, watch her still more closely, ask
Her own eyes’ serious light;
Where do they turn, as now her pen
Hangs o’er th’ unfinished line ?
Whence fell the tearful gleam that then
Did in their dark spheres shine ?
The summer-parlour looks so dark,
When from that sky you turn,
And from th’ expanse of that green park,
You scarce may aught discern.

Yet o’er the piles of porcelain rare,
O’er flower-stand, couch, and vase,
Sloped, as if leaning on the air,
One picture meets the gaze.
‘Tis there she turns; you may not see
Distinct, what form defines
The clouded mass of mystery
Yon broad gold frame confines.
But look again; inured to shade
Your eyes now faintly trace
A stalwart form, a massive head,
A firm, determined face.

Black Spanish locks, a sunburnt cheek,
A brow high, broad, and white,
Where every furrow seems to speak
Of mind and moral might.
Is that her god ? I cannot tell;
Her eye a moment met
Th’ impending picture, then it fell
Darkened and dimmed and wet.
A moment more, her task is done,
And sealed the letter lies;
And now, towards the setting sun
She turns her tearful eyes.

Those tears flow over, wonder not,
For by the inscription, see
In what a strange and distant spot
Her heart of hearts must be !
Three seas and many a league of land
That letter must pass o’er,
E’er read by him to whose loved hand
‘Tis sent from England’s shore.
Remote colonial wilds detain
Her husband, loved though stern;
She, ‘mid that smiling English scene,
Weeps for his wished return.

—Charlotte Brontë

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 6:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Groucho Marx attended one of George Gershwin’s parties, given, it seemed, for the sole purpose of letting the host play and show off his music. Someone asked him, “Do you think that Gershwin’s melodies will be played a hundred years from now?” “Sure,” was Groucho’s answer, “if George is here to play them.”

Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 5:56 PM  Leave a Comment  
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EYEWITNESS: The End of Zeppelin L31, I October 1916

Michael MacDonagh

I saw last night what is probably the most appalling spectacle associated with the war which London is likely to provide – the bringing down in flames of a raiding Zeppelin.

I was late at the office, and leaving it just before midnight was crossing to Blackfriars Bridge to get a tramcar home, when my attention was attracted by frenzied cries of ‘Oh! Oh! She’s hit!’ from some wayfarers who were standing in the middle of the road gazing at the sky in a northern direction. Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames.

The spectacle lasted two or three minutes. It was so horribly fascinating that I felt spellbound – almost suffocated with emotion, ready hysterically to laugh or cry. When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy; a swelling shout that appeared to be rising from all parts of the metropolis, ever increasing in force and intensity. It was London’s Te Deum for another crowning deliverance. Four Zeppelins destroyed in a month! . . .

On getting to the office this morning I was ordered off to Potter’s Bar, Middlesex, where the Zeppelin had been brought down, about thirteen miles from London. These days trains are infrequent and travel slowly as a war economy. The journey from King’s Cross was particularly tedious. The train I caught was packed. My compartment had its twenty seats occupied and ten more passengers found standing room in it. The weather, too, was abominable. Rain fell persistently. We had to walk the two miles to the place where the Zeppelin fell, and over the miry roads and sodden fields hung a thick, clammy mist. . .

I got from a member of the Potter’s Bar anti-aircraft battery an account of the bringing down of the Zeppelin. He said the airship was caught in the beams of three searchlights from stations miles apart, and was being fired at by three batteries also from distances widely separated. She turned and twisted, rose and fell, in vain attempts to escape to the shelter of the outer darkness. None of the shells reached her. Then an aeroplane appeared and dropped three flares – the signal to the ground batteries to cease firing as he was about to attack. The airman, flying about the Zeppelin, let go rounds of machine-gun fire at her without effect, until one round fired into her from beneath set her on fire, and down she came a blazing mass, roaring like a furnace, breaking as she fell into two parts which were held together by internal cables until they reached the ground.

The framework of the Zeppelin lay in the field in two enormous heaps, separated from each other by about a hundred yards. Most of the forepart hung suspended from a tree. . .

The crew numbered nineteen. One body was found in the field some distance from the wreckage. He must have jumped from the doomed airship from a considerable height. So great was the force with which he struck the ground that I saw the imprint of his body clearly defined in the stubbly grass. There was a round hole for the head, then deep impressions of the trunk, with outstretched arms, and finally the widely separated legs. Life was in him when he was picked up, but the spark soon went out. He was, in fact, the Commander, who had been in one of the gondolas hanging from the airship. . .

With another journalist I went to the barn where the bodies lay. As we approached we heard a woman say to the sergeant of the party of soldiers in charge, ‘May I go in? I would like to see a dead German.’ ‘No, madam, we cannot admit ladies,’ was the reply. Introducing myself as a newspaper reporter, I made the same request. The sergeant said to me, ‘If you particularly wish to go in you may. I would, however, advise you not to do so. If you do you will regret your curiosity.’ I persisted in my request. . .

Explaining to the sergeant that I particularly wanted to see the body of the Commander, I was allowed to go in. The sergeant removed the covering from one of the bodies which lay apart from the others. The only disfigurement was a slight distortion of the face. It was that of a young man, clean-shaven. He was heavily clad in a dark uniform and overcoat, with a thick muffler round his neck.

I knew who he was. At the office we had had official information of the identity of the Commander and the airship (though publication of both particulars was prohibited), and it was this knowledge that had determined me to see the body. The dead man was Heinrich Mathy, the most renowned of the German airship commanders, and the perished airship was his redoubtable L31. Yes, there he lay in death at my feet, the bugaboo of the Zeppelin raids, the first and most ruthless of these Pirates of the Air bent on our destruction.

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 5:51 PM  Comments (1)  
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A bird in the hand makes it awfully hard to blow your nose.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 6:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

Tombstones in the Starlight

I. The Minor Poet

His little trills and chirpings were his best.
No music like the nightingale’s was born
Within his throat; but he, too, laid his breast
Upon a thorn.

II. The Pretty Lady

She hated bleak and wintry things alone.
All that was warm and quick, she loved too well-
A light, a flame, a heart against her own;
It is forever bitter cold, in Hell.

III. The Very Rich Man

He’d have the best, and that was none too good;
No barrier could hold, before his terms.
He lies below, correct in cypress wood,
And entertains the most exclusive worms.

IV. The Fisherwoman

The man she had was kind and clean
And well enough for every day,
But, oh, dear friends, you should have seen
The one that got away!

V. The Crusader

Arrived in Heaven, when his sands were run,
He seized a quill, and sat him down to tell
The local press that something should be done
About that noisy nuisance, Gabriel.

VI. The Actress

Her name, cut clear upon this marble cross,
Shines, as it shone when she was still on earth;
While tenderly the mild, agreeable moss
Obscures the figures of her date of birth.

—Dorothy Parker

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Recited by the Poet Dorothy Parker

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 6:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Mother, Mother . . .

FROM Bullet Park by John Cheever

THE DIRECTOR led him up the marble stairs and opened the door to his mother’s room. It was a small bedroom with a single window. It would have been a child’s bedroom when the house contained a family. “She spoke last Thursday,” the director said. “The nurse was feeding her. She said, ‘I’m living in a foxhole.’ Of course her speech was blurred. Now I’ll leave you alone.” He closed the door and Nailles said: “Mother, Mother …”

Her white hair was thin. Her teeth were in a glass on a table by the bed. She breathed lightly and moved her left hand on the covers. Nailles had pled with the doctor to, as he put it, let her die, but the doctor had said that it was his responsibility to save lives. Inert, uncomprehending, the emaciated figure still had for him an immense emotional power. She had been in all things a fair woman-kindly, decent and loving—and that she should be so cruelly smitten and left so close to death challenged Nailles’s belief in the fitness of things. She should, he thought, have been rewarded for her excellence by a graceful demise. He took the deathly wages of sin quite literally. The wicked were sick, the good were robust; although her inertness made these the opinions of a simpleton. Her hand moved and he noticed then that she wore her diamond rings. Some nurse, playing doll, must have slipped them onto her fingers. “Mother,” he asked, “Mother, is there anything I can do for you? Would you like Tony to come and visit you? Would you like to see Nellie?” He was talking to himself.

Nailles then thought of his father. The old man had been a crack shot, a lucky fisherman, a heavy drinker and the life of his club. Nailles remembered returning from college in his freshman year. He had brought his roommate with him. He admired his roommate and presented him proudly to his father at the railroad station, but the old man raked the stranger with an instantaneous look of scorn and rejection and gave a perceptible shake of his head at the incredible bad taste his son had displayed in the choice of a companion. Nailles had thought they would go home for dinner but his father took them instead to a hotel where there was a band and dancing. When he began to order the dinner Nailles saw that his father was very drunk. He joked with the waitress, made a grab at her backside and spilled his water. When the band began to play “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” he left the table, made his way through the dancers, took the baton away from the conductor and led the band. Everyone in the restaurant was amused but Nailles who, had he possessed a pistol, would have shot his father in the back.

The old man shook his white head, weaved, bobbed, called for fortissimo and pianissimo and gave a hilarious impersonation of an orchestral conductor. It was one of his most successful acts at the club. The band laughed, the conductor laughed, the waitresses put down their trays to watch and Nailles sank deeper and deeper into his abyss of misery and unease. He could leave the place and take a taxi home but the already touchy relationship between himself and his father would only worsen. He excused himself and went to the toilet, where he leaned on a washbasin. It was the only way he had to express his grief. When he returned to the table the performance was over and his father was having a third or fourth drink. They finally got some dinner and in the taxi on the way home his father fell into a drunken sleep. Nailles had helped him up the steps to the house, grateful to be able to play out this much of his role as a son. He ardently wanted to love the old man but this was his only filial opportunity. His father went on up to his room and Nailles was greeted by his mother’s faint, pained, knowledgeable and winsome smile.

A fresh pillow lay on the only other chair in the room. He could, by taking a step, lift it, press it to her face firmly and end her pain in a few minutes. He took the step, he lifted the pillow off the chair and returned to his seat, but suppose she struggled, suppose, in spite of her pain and her cavernous loss of consciousness she still instinctively and tenaciously loved what remained of her life; suppose she regained consciousness long enough to see that her son was a matricide. These were Nailles’s memories at the breakfast table.

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 5:59 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Circular Definition:  see Circular Definition.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 5:17 PM  Leave a Comment  

Comment to John Erskine at the beginning of the latter’s teaching career.

William Peterfield Trent

I can give you no theoretical advice in pedagogy, but I’ll tell you one thing from experience. It will frequently happen when you are holding forth that some boy in the class will disagree. He will probably shake his head violently. You will be tempted to go after him and convert him then and there. Don’t do it. He is probably the only one who is listening.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Siren

In your think tank you’re Olympia,
all languid length and skin and two red roses
budding in the suds; or you’re unhappy, a
sea fury frozen in your fountain poses.
And then a fine rime settles on the water,
hides you almost, Susannah, soaped to gleaming,
but wise from birth to what the elders taught her,
that though the tongue be stone the spirit’s scheming
heat and action, craves to be
swimming with you into infinity —
as on those evenings when I hear you run
your bath and put your hair up in a bun
and sigh, and sink into your second home,
and then you call me from the other room.

—Jonathan Galassi

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 1:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Healing

FROM “The River” by Flannery O’Connor

THE child stood glum and limp in the middle of the dark living room while his father pulled him into a plaid coal. His right arm was hung in the sleeve but the father buttoned the coat anyway and pushed him forward toward a pale spotted hand that stuck through the half-open door.

“He ain’t fixed right,” a loud voice said from the hall.

“Well then for Christ’s sake fix him,” the father muttered. “It’s six o’clock in the morning.” He was in his bathrobe and barefooted. When he got the child to the door and tried to shut it, he found her looming in it, a speckled skeleton in a long pea-green coat and felt helmet.

“And his and my carfare,” she said. “It’ll be twict we have to ride the car.”

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

He went in the bedroom again to get the money and when he came back, she and the boy were both standing in the middle of the room. She was taking stock. “I couldn’t smell those dead cigarette butts long if I was ever to come sit with you,” she said, shaking him down in his coat.

“Here’s the change,” the father said. He went to the door and opened it wide and waited.

After she had counted the money she slipped it somewhere inside her coat and walked over to a watercolor hanging near the phonograph. “I know what time it is,” she said, peering closely at the black lines crossing into broken planes of violent color. “I ought to. My shift goes on at 10 P.M. and don’t get off till 5 and it takes me one hour to ride the Vine Street car.”

“Oh, I see,” he said. “Well, we’ll expect him back tonight, about eight or nine?”

“Maybe later,” she said. “We’re going to the river to a healing.

This particular preacher don’t get around this way often. I wouldn’t have paid for that,” she said, nodding at the painting, “I would have drew it myself.”

“All right, Mrs. Connin, we’ll see you then,” he said drumming on the door.

A toneless voice called from the bedroom, ‘Bri ng me an rcepack.” “Too bad his mamma’s sick,” Mrs. Corwin said. “What’s her trouble?”

“We don’t know,” he muttered.

“We’ll ask the preacher to pray for her. He’s healed a lot of folks. The Reverend Bevel Summers. Maybe she ought to see him sometime.”

“Maybe so,” he said. “We’ll see you tonight,” and he disappeared into the bedroom and left them to go.

The little boy stared at her silently, his nose and eyes running. He was four or five. He had a long face and bulging chin and half-shut eyes set far apart. He seemed mute and patient, like an old sheep waiting to be let out.

“You’ll like this preacher,” she said. “The Reverend Bevel Summers. You ought to hear him sing.”

The bedroom door opened suddenly and the father stuck his head out and said, “Good-by, old man. Have a good time.”

“Good-by,” the little boy said and jumped as if he had been shot. Mrs. Connin gave the watercolor another look. Then they went out into the hall and rang for the elevator. “I wouldn’t have drew it,” she said.

Outside the gray morning was blocked off on either side by the unlit empty buildings. “It’s going to fair up later,” she said, “but this is the last time we’ll be able to have any preaching at the river this year. Wipe your nose, Sugar Boy.”

He began rubbing his sleeve across it but she stopped him. “That ain’t nice,” she said. “Where’s your handkerchief?’

He put his hands in his pockets and pretended to look for it while she waited. “Some people don’t care how they send one off,” she murmured to her reflection in the coffee shop window. “You pervide.” She took a red and blue flowered handkerchief out of her pocket and stooped down and began to work on his nose. “Now blow,” she said and he blew. “You can borry it. Put it in your pocket.”

He folded it up and put it in his pocket carefully and they walked on to the corner and leaned against the side of a closed drugstore to wait for the car. Mrs. Connin turned up her coat collar so that it met her hat in the back. Her eyelids began to droop and she looked as if she might go to sleep against the wall. The little boy put a slight pressure on her hand.

“What’s your name?” she asked in a drowsy voice. “I don’t know but only your last name. I should have found out your first name.” His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought at any time before of changing it. “Bevel,” he said.

Mrs. Connin raised herself from the wall. “Why ain’t that a coincident!” she said. “I told you that’s the name of this preacher!”

“Bevel,” he repeated.

She stood looking down at him as if he had become a marvel to her. “I’ll have to see you meet him today,” she said. “He’s no ordinary preacher. He’s a healer. He couldn’t do nothing for Mr. Connin though. Mr. Connin didn’t have the faith but he said he would try anything once. He had this griping in his gut.”

The trolley appeared as a yellow spot at the end of the deserted street.

“He’s gone to the government hospital now,” she said, “and they taken one-third of his stomach. I tell him he better thank Jesus for what he’s got left but he says he ain’t thanking nobody. Well I declare,” she murmured, “Bevel!”

They walked out to the tracks to wait. “Will he heal me?” Bevel asked.

“What you got?”

“I’m hungry,” he decided finally.

“Didn’t you have your breakfast?”

“I didn’t have time to be hungry yet then,” he said.

“Well when we get home we’ll both have us something,” she said. “I’m ready myself.”

They got in the car and sat down a few seats behind the driver and Mrs. Connin took Bevel on her knees. “Now you be a good boy,” she said, “and let me get some sleep. Just don’t get off my lap.” She lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton. There was no one in the car but themselves and the driver and when he saw she was asleep, he took out the flowered handkerchief and unfolded it and examined it carefully. Then he folded it up again and unzipped a place in the innerlining of his coat and hid it in there and shortly he went to sleep himself.

Her house was a half-mile from the end of the car line, set back a little from the road. It was tan paper brick with a porch across the front of it and a tin top. On the porch there were three little boys of different sizes with identical speckled faces and one tall girl who had her hair up in so many aluminum curlers that it glared like the roof. The three boys followed them inside and closed in on Bevel. They looked at him silently, not smiling.

“That’s Bevel,” Mrs. Connin said, taking off her coat. “It’s a coincident he’s named the same as the preacher. These boys are J. C., Spivey, and Sinclair, and that’s Sarah Mildred on the porch. Take off that coat and hang it on the bed post, Bevel.”

The three boys watched him while he unbuttoned the coat and took it oft. Then they watched him hang it on the bed post and then they stood, watching the coat. They turned abruptly and went out the door and had a conference on the porch.

Bevel stood looking around him at the room. It was part kitchen and part bedroom. The entire house was two rooms and two porches. Close to his foot the tail of a light-colored dog moved up and down between two floor boards as he scratched his back on the underside of the house. Bevel jumped on it but the hound was experienced and had already withdrawn when his feet hit the spot.

The walls were filled with pictures and calendars. There were two round photographs of an old man and woman with collapsed mouths and another picture of a man whose eyebrows dashed out of two bushes of hair and clashed in a heap on the bridge of his nose; the rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from. “That’s Mr. Connin,” Mrs. Connin said, standing back from the stove for a second to admire the face with him, “but it don’t favor him any more.” Bevel turned from Mr. Connin to a colored picture over the bed of a man wearing a white sheet. He had long hair and a gold circle around his head and he was sawing on a board while some children stood watching him. He was going to ask who that was when the three boys came in again and motioned for him to follow them. He thought of crawling under the bed and hanging onto one of the legs but the three boys only stood there, speckled and silent, waiting, and after a second he followed them at a little distance out on the porch and around the corner of the house. They started off through a field of rough yellow weeds to the hog pen, a five-foot boarded square full of shoats, which they intended to ease him over into. When they reached it, they turned and waited silently, leaning against the side.

He was coming very slowly, deliberately bumping his feet together as if he had trouble walking. Once he had been beaten up in the park by some strange boys when his sitter forgot him, but he hadn’t known anything was going to happen that time until it was over. He began to smell a strong odor of garbage and to hear the noises of a wild animal. He stopped a few feet from the pen and waited, pale but dogged.

The three boys didn’t move. Something seemed to have happened to them. They stared over his head as if they saw something coming behind him but he was afraid to turn his own head and look. Their speckles were pale and their eyes were still and gray as glass. Only their ears twitched slightly. Nothing happened. Finally, the one in the middle said, “She’d kill us,” and turned, dejected and hacked, and climbed up on the pen and hung over, staring ill.

Bevel sat down on the ground, dazed with relief, and grinned up at them.

The one sitting on the pen glanced at him severely. “Hey you,” he said after a second, “if you can’t climb up and see these pigs you can lift that bottom board off and look in thataway.’ He appeared to offer this as a kindness.

Bevel had never seen a real pig but he had seen a pig in a book and knew they were small fat pink animals with curly tails and round grinning faces and bow ties. He leaned forward and pulled eagerly at the board.

“Pull harder,” the littlest boy said. “It’s nice and rotten. Just lift out thet nail.”

He eased a long reddish nail out of the soft wood.

“Now you can lift up the board and put your face to the…” a quiet voice began.

He had already done it and another face, gray, wet and sour, was pushing into his, knocking him down and back as it scraped out under the plank. Something snorted over him and charged back again, rolling him over and pushing him up from behind and then sending him forward, screaming through the yellow field, while it bounded behind.

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 12:43 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Horace Greeley served in Congress for three months. In the course of conversation one day, another congressman boasted that he was a self-made man. “That, sir,” replied Greeley, “relieves the Almighty of a great responsibility.”

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Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 11:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Light?

As a child I loved the smoke because it adored him, clung
to, stroked his face, filled the Valiant with an animal
made of endless shapes. And the packs themselves, smell
of tobacco new, unlit, the music Raleigh, Chesterfield,
Lark, ashtrays shaped as buddhas, crowns and spaceships.
The cough was always there, his second voice, and when
wasn’t someone asking him to stop, my mother, then me,
then doctors holding his clubbed fingers, explaining
a man shouldn’t pass out getting dressed. The smoke clung,
became his skin. When asked what I wanted done I said
burn him, make him ash: my revenge: his only wish.

—Bob Hicok

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From Radical Neck
Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 10:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Memories of John Sterling

FROM The Life Of John Sterling by Thomas Carlyle

The fields on which I first looked, and the sands which were marked by my earliest footsteps, are completely lost to my memory; and of those ancient walls among which I began to breathe, I retain no recollection more clear than the outlines of a cloud in a moonless sky. But of L—-, the village where I afterwards lived, I persuade myself that every line and hue is more deeply and accurately fixed than those of any spot I have since beheld, even though borne in upon the heart by the association of the strongest feelings.

My home was built upon the slope of a hill, with a little orchard stretching down before it, and a garden rising behind. At a considerable distance beyond and beneath the orchard, a rivulet flowed through meadows and turned a mill; while, above the garden, the summit of the hill was crowned by a few gray rocks, from which a yew-tree grew, solitary and bare. Extending at each side of the orchard, toward the brook, two scattered patches of cottages lay nestled among their gardens; and beyond this streamlet and the little mill and bridge, another slight eminence arose, divided into green fields, tufted and bordered with copsewood, and crested by a ruined castle, contemporary, as was said, with the Conquest. I know not whether these things in truth made up a prospect of much beauty. Since I was eight years old, I have never seen them; but I well know that no landscape I have since beheld, no picture of Claude or Salvator, gave me half the impression of living, heartfelt, perfect beauty which fills my mind when I think of that green valley, that sparkling rivulet, that broken fortress of dark antiquity, and that hill with its aged yew and breezy summit, from which I have so often looked over the broad stretch of verdure beneath it, and the country-town, and church-tower, silent and white beyond.

Thomas Carlyle

In that little town there was, and I believe is, a school where the elements of human knowledge were communicated to me, for some hours of every day, during a considerable time. The path to it lay across the rivulet and past the mill; from which point we could either journey through the fields below the old castle, and the wood which surrounded it, or along a road at the other side of the ruin, close to the gateway of which it passed. The former track led through two or three beautiful fields, the sylvan domain of the keep on one hand, and the brook on the other; while an oak or two, like giant warders advanced from the wood, broke the sunshine of the green with a soft and graceful shadow. How often, on my way to school, have I stopped beneath the tree to collect the fallen acorns; how often run down to the stream to pluck a branch of the hawthorn which hung over the water! The road which passed the castle joined, beyond these fields, the path which traversed them. It took, I well remember, a certain solemn and mysterious interest from the ruin. The shadow of the archway, the discolorizations of time on all the walls, the dimness of the little thicket which encircled it, the traditions of its immeasurable age, made St. Quentin’s Castle a wonderful and awful fabric in the imagination of a child; and long after I last saw its mouldering roughness, I never read of fortresses, or heights, or spectres, or banditti, without connecting them with the one ruin of my childhood.

It was close to this spot that one of the few adventures occurred which marked, in my mind, my boyish days with importance. When loitering beyond the castle, on the way to school, with a brother somewhat older than myself, who was uniformly my champion and protector, we espied a round sloe high up in the hedge-row. We determined to obtain it; and I do not remember whether both of us, or only my brother, climbed the tree. However, when the prize was all but reached,–and no alchemist ever looked more eagerly for the moment of projection which was to give him immortality and omnipotence,–a gruff voice startled us with an oath, and an order to desist; and I well recollect looking back, for long after, with terror to the vision of an old and ill-tempered farmer, armed with a bill-hook, and vowing our decapitation; nor did I subsequently remember without triumph the eloquence whereby alone, in my firm belief, my brother and myself had been rescued from instant death.

At the entrance of the little town stood an old gateway, with a pointed arch and decaying battlements. It gave admittance to the street which contained the church, and which terminated in another street, the principal one in the town of C—-. In this was situated the school to which I daily wended. I cannot now recall to mind the face of its good conductor, nor of any of his scholars; but I have before me a strong general image of the interior of his establishment. I remember the reverence with which I was wont to carry to his seat a well-thumbed duodecimo, the History of Greece by Oliver Goldsmith. I remember the mental agonies I endured in attempting to master the art and mystery of penmanship; a craft in which, alas, I remained too short a time under Mr. R—- to become as great a proficient as he made his other scholars, and which my awkwardness has prevented me from attaining in any considerable perfection under my various subsequent pedagogues. But that which has left behind it a brilliant trait of light was the exhibition of what are called ‘Christmas pieces;’ things unknown in aristocratic seminaries, but constantly used at the comparatively humble academy which supplied the best knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic to be attained in that remote neighborhood.

The long desks covered from end to end with those painted masterpieces, the Life of Robinson Crusoe, the Hunting of Chevy-Chase, the History of Jack the Giant-Killer, and all the little eager faces and trembling hands bent over these, and filling them up with some choice quotation, sacred or profane;–no, the galleries of art, the theatrical exhibitions, the reviews and processions,–which are only not childish because they are practiced and admired by men instead of children,–all the pomps and vanities of great cities, have shown me no revelation of glory such as did that crowded school-room the week before the Christmas holidays. But these were the splendors of life. The truest and the strongest feelings do not connect themselves with any scenes of gorgeous and gaudy magnificence; they are bound up in the remembrances of home.

The narrow orchard, with its grove of old apple-trees against one of which I used to lean, and while I brandished a beanstalk, roar out with Fitzjames,–

‘Come one, come all; this rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I!’–

while I was ready to squall at the sight of a cur, and run valorously away from a casually approaching cow; the field close beside it, where I rolled about in summer among the hay; the brook in which, despite of maid and mother, I waded by the hour; the garden where I sowed flower-seeds, and then turned up the ground again and planted potatoes, and then rooted out the potatoes to insert acorns and apple-pips, and at last, as may be supposed, reaped neither roses, nor potatoes, nor oak-trees, nor apples; the grass-plots on which I played among those with whom I never can play nor work again: all these are places and employments,–and, alas, playmates,–such as, if it were worth while to weep at all, it would be worth weeping that I enjoy no longer.

I remember the house where I first grew familiar with peacocks; and the mill-stream into which I once fell; and the religious awe wherewith I heard, in the warm twilight, the psalm-singing around the house of the Methodist miller; and the door-post against which I discharged my brazen artillery; I remember the window by which I sat while my mother taught me French; and the patch of garden which I dug for– But her name is best left blank; it was indeed writ in water. These recollections are to me like the wealth of a departed friend, a mournful treasure. But the public has heard enough of them; to it they are worthless: they are a coin which only circulates at its true value between the different periods of an individual’s existence, and good for nothing but to keep up a commerce between boyhood and manhood. I have for years looked forward to the possibility of visiting L—-; but I am told that it is a changed village; and not only has man been at work, but the old yew on the hill has fallen, and scarcely a low stump remains of the tree which I delighted in childhood to think might have furnished bows for the Norman archers.

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Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 10:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Claim

Even through the days as a believer
doubt would shadow the distant light
over the valley deep in itself
the voices that rang clear of it
never lingered
and long before I left
I had already gone

each time I turned away
it all stepped into that water
where it would seem to be the same
almost the same
and the heart would sink at the sight of it
without knowing why
the same heart come again
once more expecting nothing
and caught by what was never there

—W. S. Merwin

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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 4:08 PM  Comments (2)  
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Toward the end of his life Thoreau was urged to make his peace with God. “I did not know that we had ever quarreled,” he replied.

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 11:56 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Rusted Legacy

Imagine a city where nothing’s
forgiven    your deed adheres
to you like a scar, a tattoo    but almost everything’s
forgotten    deer flattened leaping a highway for food
the precise reason for the shaving of the confused girl’s head
the small boys’ punishing of the frogs
— a city memory-starved but intent on retributions
Imagine the architecture    the governance
the men and the women in power
— tell me if it is not true you still
live in that city.

Imagine a city partitioned    divorced from its hills
where temples and telescopes used to probe the stormy codices
a city brailling through fog
thicket and twisted wire
into dark’s velvet dialectic
sewers which are also rivers
art’s unchartered aquifers    the springhead
sprung open in civic gardens left unlocked at night
I finger the glass beads I strung and wore
under the pines while the arrests were going on
(transfixed from neck to groin I wanted to save what I could)
They brought trays with little glasses of cold water
into the dark park    a final village gesture
before the villages were gutted.
They were trying to save what they could
— tell me if this is not the same city.

I have forced myself to come back like a daughter
required to put her mother’s house in order
whose hands need terrible gloves to handle
the medicinals    the disease packed in those linens
Accomplished criminal I’ve been but
can I accomplish justice here? Tear the old wedding sheet
into cleaning rags? Faithless daughter
like stone    but with water pleating across
Let water be water let stone be stone
Tell me is this the same city.

This I — must she, must she lie scabbed with rust
crammed with memory in a place
of little anecdotes    no one left
to go around gathering the full dissident story?
Rusting her hands and shoulders stone her lips
yet leaching down from her eyesockets tears
— for one self only? each encysts a city.

1997

—Adrienne Rich

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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 11:54 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Demons of Solanka

FROM Fury by Salman Rushdie

Alone in the kitchen, Professor Malik Solanka began to drink. The wine was as good and as powerful as ever, but he wasn’t drinking for pleasure. Steadily, he worked his way through the bottles, and as he did, the demons came crawling out through the several orifices of his body, sliding down his nose and out through his ears, dribbling and squeezing through every opening they could find. By the bottom of the first bottle they were dancing on his eyeballs, his fingernails, they had wrapped their rough lapping tongues around his throat, their spears were jabbing at his genitals, and all he could hear was their scarlet song of shrill, most horrid hate. He had come through self-pity now and entered a terrible, blaming anger, and by the bottom of the second bottle, as his head slopped about on his neck, the demons were kissing him with their forked tongues and their tails were wrapped around his penis, rubbing and squeezing, and as he listened to their dirty talk, the unforgivable blame for what he had become had begun to settle on the woman upstairs, she who was nearest to hand, the traitress who had refused to destroy his enemy, his nemesis, the doll, she who had poured the poison of Little Brain into the brain of his child, turning the son against the father, she who had destroyed the peace of his home life by preferring the uncreated child of her obsession to her actually existing husband, she, his wife, his betrayer, his one great foe. The third bottle fell, half unfinished, across the kitchen table that she had so lovingly set for dinner à deux, using her mother’s old lace tablecloth and the best cutlery and a pair of long-stemmed red Bohemian wineglasses, and as the red fluid spilled across the old lace, he remembered that he’d forgotten the damn lamb, and when he opened the Aga door, the smoke poured out and set off the smoke detector in the ceiling, and the screaming of the alarm was the laughter of the demons, and to stop it STOP IT he had to get the step stool and climb up on unsteady wine-dark legs to take the battery pack out of the damn-fool thing, okay, okay, but even when he’d done that without breaking his goddamn neck, the demons went right on laughing their screaming laughter, and the room was still full of smoke, goddamn her, couldn’t she even have done this one small thing, and what would it take to stop the screaming in his head, this screaming like a knife, like a knife in his brain in his ear in his eye in his stomach in his heart in his soul, couldn’t the bitch just have taken the meat out and put it right there, on the carving board next to the sharpening steel, the long fork and the knife, the carving knife, the knife.

It was a big house and the smoke alarm had not woken Eleanor or Asmaan, who was already in her bed, Malik’s bed. Fat lot of use that alarm system turned out to be, huh. And here he was standing above them in the dark and here in his hand was the carving knife, and there was no alarm system to warn them against him, was there, Eleanor lying on her back with her mouth slightly open and a low burr of a snore rumbling in her nose, Asmaan on his side, curled tightly into her, sleeping the pure deep sleep of innocence and trust. Asmaan murmured inaudibly in his sleep and the sound of his faint voice broke through the demons’ shrieking and brought his father to his senses. Before him lay his only child, the one living being under this roof who still knew that the world was a place of wonders and life was sweet and the present moment was everything and the future was infinite and didn’t need to be thought about, while the past was useless and fortunately gone for good and he, a child wrapped in the soft sorcerer’s cloak of childhood, was loved beyond words, and safe. Malik Solanka panicked. What was he doing standing over these two sleepers with a, with a, knife, he wasn’t the sort of person who would do a thing like this, you read about those persons every day in the yellow press, coarse men and sly women who slaughtered their babies and ate their grandmothers, cold serial murderers and tormented pedophiles and unashamed sexual abusers and wicked stepfathers and dumb violent Neanderthal apes and all the world’s ill-educated uncivilized brutes, and those were other persons entirely, no persons of that nature resided in this house, ergo he, Professor Malik Solanka formerly of King’s College in the University of Cambridge, he of all people could not be in here holding in his drunken hand a savage instrument of death. Q.E.D. And anyway, 1 never was any good with the meat, Eleanor. It was always you who carved.

The doll, he thought with a belching, vinous start. Of course! That satanic doll was to blame. He had sent all the avatars of the she-devil out of the house, but one remained. That had been his mistake. She had crawled out of her cupboard and down through his nose and given him the carving knife and sent him to do her bloody work. But he knew where she was hiding. She couldn’t hide from him. Professor Solanka turned and left the bedroom, knife in hand, muttering, and if Eleanor opened her eyes after he’d gone, he did not know it; if she had watched his retreating back and knew and judged him, it must be for her to say.

It had grown dark outside on West Seventieth Street. Little Brain was on his lap as he finished speaking. Its garments were slashed and torn and you could see where the knife had made deep incisions in its body. “Even after I stabbed her, as you see, I couldn’t leave her behind. All the way to America I held her body in my arms.” Mila’s own doll silently interrogated its damaged twin. “Now you’ve heard everything, which is a great deal more than you wanted,” Solanka said. “You know how this thing has ruined my life.” Mila Milo’s green eyes were on fire. She came over and caught up both his hands between her own. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “Your life isn’t ruined. And these-come on, Professor!-these are just dolls.”

Salman Rushdie

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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 11:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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For My Lover, Returning To His Wife

She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies.

She has always been there, my darling.
She is, in fact, exquisite.
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.

Let’s face it, I have been momentary.
vA luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.

She is more than that. She is your have to have,
has grown you your practical your tropical growth.
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,

has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter’s wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo,

done this with her legs spread out
in the terrible months in the chapel.
If you glance up, the children are there
like delicate balloons resting on the ceiling.

She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person,
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep.

I give you back your heart.
I give you permission—

for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound—
for the burying of her small red wound alive—

for the pale flickering flare under her ribs,
for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse,
for the mother’s knee, for the stocking,
for the garter belt, for the call—

the curious call
when you will burrow in arms and breasts
and tug at the orange ribbon in her hair
and answer the call, the curious call.

She is so naked and singular
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.

As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.

—Anne Sexton

Recited by the Poet Anne Sexton

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Sexton, Anne (1928–74), major American poet, whose book Transformations (1971) was one of the most significant ‘subversive’ adaptations of the Grimms’ tales from a woman’s perspective.

Sexton was born Anne Grey Harvey into an upper‐middle‐class family in Newton, Massachusetts; after attending a Boston finishing school, she eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton and worked for a time as a model.

In the early 1950s, during which time she gave birth to her two daughters, she had a series of mental breakdowns and was advised by her psychiatrist, Dr Martin Orne, to write poetry as a form of therapy. Consequently, Sexton began taking courses in John Holme’s poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and her talent was immediately recognized. She received a scholarship in 1958 to the Antioch Writers’ Conference, and later that year she was accepted into Robert Lowell’s graduate writing seminar at Boston University, where she met and became friends with Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, and George Starbuck.

In 1960 she published her first important collection of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and she also began teaching poetry at Harvard and Radcliffe. Throughout the 1960s Sexton won numerous prizes and published several collections of poetry, but she also suffered from severe depressions, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized on occasion.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die in 1967, and she taught at Boston University, worked at the American Place Theatre, and conducted poetry workshops in her home. However, she continued to feel disturbed and tried to commit suicide again in 1970, the year before she published Transformations, which was performed in an operatic adaptation in Minneapolis in 1973. This was also the year in which she divorced her husband and was hospitalized at the McLean’s Hospital. The following year she took her life in the garage of her home by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Image by Edward Hopper
Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 7:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Boy in the Rain

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept

—W H Auden

FROM The Shield of Achilles

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Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:45 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Bengal the Eternal

FROM Glimpses of Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore

SHELIDAH

24th June 1894

I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world.

The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”

The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been….

SHELIDAH,

9th August 1894.

I saw a dead bird floating down the current to-day. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree. The little creature bereft of its nest awoke just for a moment before it went to sleep again for ever.

When I am in the presence of the awful mystery of all-destructive Nature, the difference between myself and the other living things seems trivial. In town, human society is to the fore and looms large; it is cruelly callous to the happiness and misery of other creatures as compared with its own.

In Europe, also, man is so complex and so dominant, that the animal is too merely an animal to him. To Indians the idea of the transmigration of the soul from animal to man, and man to animal, does not seem strange, and so from our scriptures pity for all sentient creatures has not been banished as a sentimental exaggeration.

When I am in close touch with Nature in the country, the Indian in me asserts itself and I cannot remain coldly indifferent to the abounding joy of life throbbing within the soft down-covered breast of a single tiny bird.

SHELIDAH,

10th August 1894.

Last night a rushing sound in the water awoke me—a sudden boisterous disturbance of the river current—probably the onslaught of a freshet: a thing that often happens at this season. One’s feet on the planking of the boat become aware of a variety of forces at work beneath it. Slight tremors, little rockings, gentle heaves, and sudden jerks, all keep me in touch with the pulse of the flowing stream.

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night, which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning, that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man.

The day-world seems to me like European Music—its concords and discords resolving into each other in a great progression of harmony; the night-world like Indian Music—pure, unfettered melody, grave and poignant. What if their contrast be so striking—both move us. This principle of opposites is at the very root of creation, which is divided between the rule of the King and the Queen; Night and Day; the One and the Varied; the Eternal and the Evolving.

We Indians are under the rule of Night. We are immersed in the Eternal, the One. Our melodies are to be sung alone, to oneself; they take us out of the everyday world into a solitude aloof. European Music is for the multitude and takes them along, dancing, through the ups and downs of the joys and sorrows of men.

Image: West Bengal, India

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The Shelidah Years of Rabindranath Tagore

The cultural heritage of Bengal goes back thousands of years but it was Tagore who opened the gateway of Bengali literature to the rest of the world. He travelled all over the world, bringing back fame and honour for his country

Out of eighty years of his entire life, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) spent only ten years in Shelidah, Kushtia. But that period played a significant role in his writings as well as in his life. Tagore wrote about this stage of his life in his wonderful letters to his niece Indira which were later published in 1912 as Chhinnapatra (Torn Leaves) and in English as Glimpses of Bengal. These letters are excellent images of Bengal and the Bengali life. Tagore told WB Yeats in 1918, that those very years were most productive for him, and made a new chapter in his life. He felt that the letters would present to Yeats, pictures and ideas of his surroundings more vividly and accurately than anything he had ever written.

Both the boat and the river became an integral part of his time in Shelidah and played a significant role in the letters. He wrote about the people of his estate and about their life. His time was spent writing copiously and reading avidly.

From the boats, he watched life on the banks. He looked on at ferries endlessly carrying villagers to and from the market; groups of boys raucously rolling logs along the bank; or a young village bride sailing away to another village, leaving behind her tearful family behind; or a feisty gypsy woman rebuking a high-handed police constable.

During his days in Shelidah he visited the Maharaja of Tripura several times and a friendship developed between him and the Maharaja. Tagore was instrumental in getting financial assistance from the Maharaja of Tripura for scientist Satyen Bose for completing his research works in Europe.

He was a restless and could not stay in one place for too long. He was sent to England several times but couldn’t stay there long enough to complete any formal education. He used to be homesick and longed to return to his country.

The family was quite surprised when Tagore agreed at his father’s persuasion to go to Shelidah in 1891 to look after the family estates. He was not known for this kind of a commitment. He however moved and stayed there for ten crucial years of his life. In Shelaidah and Shazadpur on the bank of the Padma he came in close contact with the common village people and learnt about their life and realized their pathos and misery. The revelation had an immense reflection on his work which is particularly evident in the post 1891 writings. Most of his finest short stories were written during this period.

The serene rural surrounding inspired him to write, and it was at this time, ‘The Postmaster’ was written. Written in 1891 ‘The Postmaster’ was among Tagore’s earliest stories; it was made into a film by Satyajit Ray in 1960-61. He published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat, 1894), and plays, notably Chitrangada (Chitra 1892;) during these years. Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. He achieved this quality during his stay in Sheliadah.

In time the boat became his life. To quote from Tagore: ‘They tied the boat in a stuffy place last night and drew down the curtains. The closeness woke me up and on top of it some people started to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morning. ‘How much longer will you sleep? Awake, awake beloved’ … The boatman stopped their singing but the words went on ringing in my ears ‘awake, awake, beloved!’ till I felt ill. Finally I raised the curtains and fell asleep towards dawn… I may be able to leave here after a fortnight but I am not yet certain.’

Most of his subjects here were Muslims. He introduced his own court. Every village had its own headman from among the villagers. Five heads made a court in Tagore’s estate. Final authority rested with Tagore. Thus he had established a welfare-based society in his estate. But he had no fascination for politics or power. During his time in Shelidah none of his subjects needed to go to the local police or the court. They led a safe and peaceful life under his protection
Most of his time, on the estate, Tagore was alone, except for his subjects. His family came to live with him in Shelidah in 1898 for a few years. Between 1891 and 1901 he wrote fifty nine short stories, set in both villages and towns of Bengal and in Calcutta. These deal with characters at every level of society.

Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma river. Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable, as are his more than 2,000 songs, which remain extremely popular among all classes of Bengalis.

In conclusion a few lines from one of Tagore’s poems written in Shelidah:

‘Whoever wishes to,
May sit in meditation
 with eyes closed
To know if the world be true or false.
I, meanwhile,
Shall sit with hungry eyes,
To see the world

While the light lasts.

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Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:17 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Song of Eternity in Time

ONCE, at night, in the manor wood
My Love and I long silent stood,
Amazed that any heavens could
Decree to part us, bitterly repining.
My Love, in aimless love and grief,
Reached forth and drew aside a leaf
That just above us played the thief
And stole our starlight that for us was shining.

A star that had remarked her pain
Shone straightway down that leafy lane,
And wrought his image, mirror-plain,
Within a tear that on her lash hung gleaming.
“Thus Time,” I cried, “is but a tear
Some one hath wept ‘twixt hope and fear,
Yet in his little lucent sphere
Our star of stars, Eternity, is beaming.”

—Sidney Lanier

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Sidney Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia, on February 3, 1842. His father, Robert Lanier, was a lawyer, and his mother, Mary Anderson, was linked through her Virginian ancestry to members of Virginia’s original House of Burgesses. In the poet’s youth in central Georgia, it was music that first captured his interest. He learned to play the violin, flute, piano, banjo and guitar.

His proclivity for music was an early sign of his budding genius. By age fourteen, Lanier was enrolled as a sophomore at Oglethorpe College, where he graduated at the top of his class. At eighteen, he was offered a tutorship at the college, a position he held until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, Lanier was summoned to enlist in the Confederate Army. Serving alongside his brother, his battalion endured numerous battles, ending in his capture and imprisonment near Richmond, Virginia. Five months later, in February, 1865, he was released and permitted the long journey home. However, the unfavorable conditions of prison led Lanier to contract tuberculosis, which troubled him for the rest of his life.

Upon returning from the war, Lanier completed and soon published his first book: a novel detailing the gruesome hardships of war, titled Tiger Lilies. In 1867, he took the head position in a country academy in Prattville, Alabama. By December of the same year, he was married to Miss Mary Day, of Macon, and a month later he suffered his first hemorrhage in the lungs. In addition to treatments and growing exhaustion, Lanier’s artistic temperament was split by his love for both music and literature. After practicing law with his father for several years, he was urged to consider that profession, to which Lanier responded in a letter:

“My dear father, think how, for twenty years, through poverty, through pain, through weariness, through sickness, through the uncongenial atmosphere of a farcical college and of a bare army and then of an exacting business life…think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances…these two figures of music and of poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them.”

In 1874, Lanier published his poem “Corn,” which earned him many admirers, one of whom, Bayard Taylor, commissioned the poet to write the cantata for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The next few years were poetically his most productive. He wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” “A Song of Love,” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” his most celebrated poem. An offer to teach English literature brought him to Baltimore, Maryland, and in 1879, Lanier was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.

Having grown quite feeble by late 1880, he penned his last poem, “Sunrise,” and months later, on September 7, 1881, the poet died in Lynn, North Carolina, with his wife and family at his side, at the age of thirty-nine.

By his wife’s efforts following his death, Sidney Lanier’s poems were collected and published in a single volume, from which his readership grew. A fondness for the poet seems to exist most deeply in the South, where he is commemorated by Lake Lanier in central Georgia, and the Sidney Lanier Bridge, the state’s largest cable-stayed bridge, which opened in 2003 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Image: Lake Lanier, Georgia

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Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 5:31 PM  Comments (2)  
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A Murder Case

A MURDER CASE

Shiga Naoya

A sudden tragedy had happened, in which Fan, a young Chinese, who was a member of some juggler’s party, had slashed the carotid artery of his wife with a jack knife, during one of their juggling performances. The young wife died on the spot, and Fan was immediately arrested.

The manager of the party, an assistant Chinese, and more than three hundred spectators had been witnesses of the tragedy.

In one corner of the pit of the theatre a policeman was seated in a high chair watching the performance. But no one knew whether the killing had been intentional or not, though the tragedy had taken place before the eyes of a number of onlookers.

The performance had begun with a feat of knife throwing, which had been performed in the following manner:—-

The young wife was placed in a standing position in front of a thick board of wood of the size of a door. The husband, standing twelve feet away, threw big knives towards her, one after another, and as they hit their mark, they would stick fast in the board, thus making an outline of bristling knives round the woman just two inches from her body.

At the trial, the judge first of all questioned the manager.

“Was this feat at all difficult to perform?”

“No, your honour, it was not so very difficult for a skilful juggler, except that he needed to be in complete command of steady nerve.”

“Then is it impossible to look upon it as a mere accident on the part of Fan?”

“Of course, your honour, such a performance had its risks, very possible risks.”

“Then do you think that this accident may have been an intentional crime?”

“No, your honour, I don’t think that at all, because, you see, it was a feat in which one must make the best of one’s only skill, and also make use of a certain intuitive talent in throwing knives from a distance of twelve feet; and one can’t be certain that it can be done as surely as by using some machine for the

purpose. It is true, your honour, that before it really happened, it didn’t enter our heads that such an accident might be possible. But now that it has happened, we don’t care for people to think that we had entertained any such fear, and we don’t care to be judged accordingly.”

“What is your opinion of the real truth of the occurrence? “

“I don’t know at all.”

The judge seemed puzzled. All the facts of the case pointed to murder, yet there was no evidence at all to decide whether it had been intentional or not. If it had been an intentional murder, he felt that no subtler crime could be committed.

The judge then called in the assistant Chinese who had been a member of the party even before Fan had joined it.

“Tell me something of Fan’s everyday behaviour,” said the judge.

“He is a man of very good behaviour, your honour,” answered the assistant. “He never went in for gambling, he never indulged in women or drinking either. Moreover, ever since last year he has embraced the Christian faith. He also spoke English fairly well and in his leisure time he often read sermons and such things.”

“How did his wife behave?

“She also behaved well, Your honour. Strolling performers are not always people of good behaviour, you know. Some of them occasionally elope with other men’s wives. But Fan’s wife was never the kind of woman who could be seduced by anyone at all, even though she was a pretty woman and was sometimes made advances to.”

“What is your opinion of the characters of these two young people?”

“They were both exceedingly gentle and kind towards others, and both of them were gifted with a lot of self-restraint when they became angry with anyone, but …. (Here the Chinese assistant stopped short, and after thinking for an instant, he continued) I fear it may be disadvantageous to him if I say this, your honour, but speaking candidly, these two people who were so gentle and kind and modest, were cruel to each other.”

“What was their reason?”

“ I don’t know, your honour.”

“Have they behaved in this way ever since you first became acquainted with them?”

“Yes, Your honour. Two years ago the wife gave birth to a premature child, who died three days later, and ever since then their lives gradually seemed to become discordant. Very trifling matters sometimes caused them to quarrel, and he would then suddenly become very pale. But in most cases he soon quietened down, and became silent, doing nothing violent to his wife. His Christian faith seemed to influence him from doing anything cruel to her, although quite often his face plainly showed that he was endeavouring to control some unbearable anger. So one day I said to him, ‘If there is such discord, don’t you think it would be better if you and your wife parted?’ ‘But,’ he answered, ‘if she has any reason to want a divorce, I have none at all.’ He was very indulgent after All, your honour. Once I heard him say that it was quite natural that a wife who was not loved by her husband should in time lose all her love for him. His motive in reading his Bible and all those sermons seems to have been an idea of his that by doing so be might perhaps be able to calm the disturbance in his heart, and thus cure his rather cruel feeling for his wife, for apparently there was no real reason for his dislike. She was to be pitied, your honour. For the past three years, and ever since she married Fan she has been continuously on the travel, going from one place to another, living the life of a strolling performer. The only one she had belonging to her was her only brother, a dissipated youth, who existed in his native village without a home. If she was to part from her husband and return to her native place, where would she find a house to live in, or who would believe in or marry a woman who had left there years before to join a party of strolling players?

“She could not help remaining with Fan, your honour, even though there was terrible discord in their married life.”

“And what is your opinion of the tragedy? ” asked the judge.

“Did he do it intentionally or by mistake, do you mean?”

“Yes.”

“To speak plainly, I have thought and thought about it ever since it happened, but the more I think, the more puzzling it becomes to me, your honour.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know. At any rate, the whole affair seems very mysterious, there’s no denying that, your honour. Everybody feels the same about it, you know. Our announcer also says be cannot understand it either.”

“What did you think the instant the tragedy happened?”

“I thought … yes, I thought he had killed her intentionally”

“Well.”

“But I’m told that our announcer thought, that Fan had missed his aim.”

“Did he? But wasn’t it natural for your announcer to think such a thing when he was acquainted with the unhappy relationship that existed between the couples?”

“It may be so, but even though I thought at first that Fan’s deed had been intentional, after carefully considering about it again, I now fancy that my judg ment may have been prejudiced by knowing too much about the private life of the couple.”

“What was Fan’s attitude at that time?”

“As the knife hit, he sprang forward with a shriek. After that I saw blood bursting from the woman’s neck. She stood still for a minute, and then bending her knees suddenly, was suspended a few moments by the knives sticking all round her. As they gradually began to fall off the board one by one, her body collapsed, face downwards. Nobody dared to move. Everyone of the audience stared as if turned stone. I can’t speak definitely about Fan’s attitude at the time, because for the moment I was too much taken aback, but I suppose that for a few moments he also must have been rather dazed. After that it dawned upon me that he had killed his wife. Then I noticed that he had turned deathly pale, and was standing stock still with his eyes closed. As the stage curtain came down, we rushed to the poor woman and raised her body, but found that she was dead. Fan at that time seemed horror-stricken, and at last said, ‘Whatever made me commit such a fault?’ He then knelt down and prayed for some time.”

“Didn’t he seem to be in a panic?”

“Yes, your honour, a little.”

“All right. If it is necessary I shall summon you again.”

The judge dismissed the assistant juggler, and asked for Fan to be brought before him. The latter was rather a clever-looking man, with a strong and well-shaped mouth. As soon as the judge’s eyes rested upon him, he saw that the man was suffering from nervous strain.

“We have questioned your manager and the assistant,” said the judge, “and will now question you.”

Fan nodded.

“Up to the present, have you never loved your wife?”

“I have loved my wife with all my heart from the day of our marriage until her death, sir.”

“How was it then that you both disagreed?”

“It was, sir, because I knew that her baby was not mine.”

“Do you know the man?”

“I can guess, sir. He is her cousin.”

“Are you acquainted with him?”

“Yes, sir. He is one of my bosom friends. It was he who first suggested our marriage. He persuaded me into it, sir.”

“Was your relationship with your wife begun before your marriage?”

“Of course, sir. The baby was born eight months after our marriage.”

“Your assistant says that the child’s birth was premature.”

“I told him so.”

“I’m told that the child soon died.”

“Yes sir, it died.”

“What caused its death?”

“It was suffocated by her breasts.”

“Did Your wife do it intentionally?”

“She said it was an accident.”

The judge said nothing but looked steadily at Fan’s face. Fan’s eyes dropped, and he waited for the judge to ask another question.

“Did Your wife confess her unlawful relationship to you?”

“No, sir, she didn’t. I didn’t ask. Thinking the death of her child had been a kind of atonement for her unfaithfulness, I determined to be as kind and generous to her as possible.”

“But after that time did you begin to find it hard to be generous and kind to her? “

“I had some feeling that even the death of the child could not drive from my mind, sir. When I was separated from her, to some extent I thought kindly of her, but when she was with me and happened to be doing anything, a feeling of unbearable displeasure took hold of me, especially when I looked upon her body.”

“Didn’t you think of getting a divorce from her?”

“I wanted very often to do so, sir, but I never said anything to her about it.”

“Why ?”

“Because, sir, I was weak, and she had once said to me that she would die if ever I divorced her.”

“Did your wife love you?”

“No, sir.”

“Then why did she say such a thing?”

“ I think it was because she realised that she must live … her parent’s home had been ruined by her brother, and she knew that no decent man would ever marry the former wife of a strolling juggler. Besides, she suffered from some extreme weakness of the legs, which made it impossible for her to do any hard work.”

“Tell me something of the physical relations that existed between you and your wife.”

“Perhaps they were not very different from that of any other ordinary man and woman, sir.”

“Wasn’t your wife at all sympathetic towards you?”

“No, I don’t think she felt any sympathy towards me at all. I think that it must have caused her quite a lot of pain to have to live with me. But the way she endeavoured to bear it was beyond anyone’s imagination. She watched my collapsing life with indifferent eyes, and with a cruel alertness she coldly watched me struggling to live my life as best as I could.”

“Why couldn’t you take some active attitude against all this sort of thing?”

“Because, sir, I had various things to consider.”

“What were they?”

“I wanted to feel that I was acting rightly, yet when I tried to think this way, I never found any solution at all.”

“Had you never thought of killing your wife?”

Fan did not answer. The judge repeated the question again. Fan still hesitated before he answered, but at last he said,

“Before that I often wished that she were dead.”

“Then perhaps if the law had permitted you, you might have killed her?”

“It was not that I was afraid of the law. It was only because I was weak, and my desire to live a decent life was very strong in me, sir.”

“And did you think of killing her after that?”

“I made no decision to take her life, but I thought of it, sir.”

“Was that before the accident?”

“ It was on the previous day.”

“Did you have any quarrel with her before the accident?”

“Yes, sir.”

“About what?”

“About quite a trifling matter, sir.”

“All the same, tell me about it.”

“ I have a way of being rather irritable when I’m hungry, you know, and during a meal together I became angry with her because she had taken such a

long time preparing it.”

“Were you more angry than usual? “

“No, sir, but my excitement lasted unusually long because at the time I was so irritated to think that recently I had found it so hard to live in peace. I couldn’t lie down to sleep at night without my brain being tortured with all kinds of worries. I realised that the very unsettled life I was leading all due to my disturbed relations with my wife —- a life full of anxiety and nerve-strain. There were things which I wanted to do to rid myself of this anxiety, yet I did not dare. There seemed no brightness ahead of me at all, even though I had a burning desire to find it. Even though this slow-burning fire in me did not burst into flames, it seemed to choke me, for it went on smouldering, causing me suppressed and intense agony of mind. I felt that in the end it would surely kill me —- that I would die some living death.

“Living in that way, I strove hard to bear my life. “Oh, how I wish my enemy would die!’ This thought kept on repeating itself over and over again in my mind. Then, why did I not kill her? I knew that if I did, I might be put into prison, but I would not feel sure that life in prison would be worse than the one I was enduring. Then again I thought of the future, and I felt that I must struggle on, even to death, however hard it might prove —- trying to break down this terrible barrier of anxiety, but striving always. I desired to go on living in this way … With these thoughts I gradually forgot about my duty to my wife.

Then I got horribly tired, but it was not the fatigue that can be refreshed by sleep. I felt dazed, and then my strained nerve’s relaxed, and this feeling of murder ous intention gradually faded. I felt very lonely, having the feelings of a man who had been awakened from a terrible nightmare. At the same time I regretted my lack of spirit, which I felt was weakening, even though my highly-strung nerves had almost driven me to a crime the day before.

“When I awoke that morning, I was sure that my poor wife had passed a sleepless night.”

“When you got up that morning, how did you both feel?”

“We spoke no word to one another.”

“Why didn’t you think of running away from your wife?”

“Do you mean that if I had done this the result would have saved me?”

“Yes.”

“But with me it was quite different, sir.”

After saying this, Fan stopped short, and gazed steadily at the judge. The latter said nothing, but, in his eyes was an expression of mild compassion, and he nodded his head. Then Fan continued,

“But there still lay a wide gulf between such an idea and the thought of murder, sir. All that day, ever since the morning, I was unconsciously excited. Sometimes you know, fatigue of the body causes a dull excitement of the nerves. Later I was strolling by myself, and a feeling of great loneliness came over me, but it was mixed with an almost unbearable impatience. I had a desperate feeling that I must do something. But the idea of murder never entered my head as it had done the previous night, nor did I feel any anxiety at all over the coming performance of that evening. If I had been at all anxious, I should perhaps not have selected such kind of turn for that day’s programme. We had many kinds of turns besides that one. Even until the very moment for us to perform our act that evening, I had no murderous intention in my mind.

“I cut up a sheet of paper with my knives first of all to show the spectators how very sharp they were. Soon my wife appeared. She was thickly rouged and powdered and was dressed in a gorgeous Chinese garment. Her attitude was as usual. Greeting the spectators with a pleasant smile, she placed her body in a standing position before the thick wooden board. Then taking my knives, I stood facing her, at some distance away. It was the first time that we had stood face to face since the previous night. It was then that I first felt the danger of having selected that particular performance for that evening. The thought suddenly came to me that it would be necessary for me to keep my nerves as steady as possible, for fear of making a mistake. I must keep control over my giddiness.

“But however much I tried to be calm, I was still conscious of a great fatigue of heart, body and soul. Then I began to lose confidence. I tried to shut my eyes and keep cool, but a giddy feeling stole over me.

Then the time came for me to start. First of all I threw a knife so that it would stick above her head. It flew and stuck to the board two inches higher than usual. After that I threw two knives one after the other, so that they would stick near her arm-pits, which were showing, for her arms were raised on a level with her shoulders. When the knives slipped from my hand, they felt sticky to the touch. It then came to my mind that I was not sure where they would fly. Each time after that, as knife after knife flew through the air and stuck to the board, I felt greatly relieved. I strove to be composed, but the strain caused me a lot of worry as I prepared my arm for throwing. Then I threw another knife to the left side of her neck. But just I was going to throw another to the right side, her facial expression suddenly changed. A pitiful expression of intense terror seemed to take hold of her. Perhaps she had some intuition that the next knife would strike her. I cannot say. I then began to feel strongly the influence of her fear and terror stealing into my mind. My giddiness increased, nevertheless I took aim, and threw my knife with all my might, aiming it at a darkness instead of at any target.”

The judge was silent.

“At last I have killed her!” I said to myself.

“Well, do you mean you did it intentionally?”

“Yes, sir. At that moment I suddenly felt that I had done it intentionally.”

“You knelt beside her and prayed, I’m told?”

“Yes, sir, that was merely a cunning idea which by chance entered my mind. I was aware that everyone knew of my Christian faith, so I thought that a pretence of prayer would well fit the occasion.”

“Did it occur to you at all that you had intentionally killed her?”

“Yes, sir, and so I thought that I must make some pretence that it had been involuntary homicide.”

“But what made you think it was intentional murder?”

“My frightened state of mind, sir.”

“And you thought you had succeeded in cheating your audience, didn’t you?”

“When I thought about it afterwards I shuddered, sir. It is true that I had pretended to be amazed, but to some extent I lost my head because I was truly sorry for what I had done. But if there had been a single person of keen perception among the onlookers, he would of course have noticed that I was feigning a little. But afterwards I shuddered with shame.”

“I made up my mind that night that I would use every power that was in me to declare myself innocent of the charge. The thought that there was no disputable evidence whatever regarding the murder, made me feel easier in mind. Of course every member of our troupe knew of the discord which existed between my wife and me, so it was natural to some extent that I should be suspected of having committed intentional homicide. But I felt sure that if I insisted with all my power that it had been a mere accident, that’s all there would be to it.

“Our relations might make others suspicious, but it would never bring forth any evidence. At any rate I thought, sir, that I should be acquitted on account of insufficient evidence. Whereupon, chewing the matter over secretly, I prepared in my mind the statement I would make in court, for I wished to appear as innocent as possible of the affair.

“But soon I began to wonder why I had thought I had committed a willful murder. I began to feel doubt about my feelings of the previous night, and could not quite regard my action as that of homicide.

“Gradually I became filled with doubt. I became very excited —- so excited that I began to lose all patience. I felt strangely happy —-so exalted that I could no more remain still. I wanted to cry out loudly.”

“Do you mean that you began to look upon your act as an accident pure and simple?”

“No, sir, Even now I cannot regard it in that light. It was because I thought that if I confessed everything openly I would not be acquitted. To be absolved of the blame meant everything to me, so I thought it would be far more effective to be honest, stating that I was not able to decide. I felt it was better to do this than to declare my innocence. I decided that I would never declare it had been an accident, nor should I assert that it had been intentional. Finally I felt that I could never make any confession either way, sir.”

Fan ceased speaking. The judge was silent for a little while. Then he spoke very gently.

“Your confession as a whole seems to have been truthful. But have you no regret or sorrow for the death of your poor wife?”

“No, none at all, sir. I never imagined it possible that I should be able to speak of my wife’s death with so light a heart as possesses me now, even though at times I have felt a kind of irritated love for her.”

“All right. Now you may retire,” said the judge. Fan without answering bowed his head slightly and left the courtroom.

The judge felt that some unspeakable excitement had taken possession of him. He hastily took up his brush and wrote down these words:

“Not guilty”

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Naoya Shiga

Naoya was born in Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture. His father, the son of a samurai, was a banker. The family moved to Tokyo when Shiga was three, to live with his grandparents, who were largely responsible for raising him. Shiga’s mother died when he was thirteen and his father remarried not long after. Shiga graduated from the Gakushuin Peer’s School and attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he met Uchimura Kanzo (who converted him to Christianity). However, he left university without graduating.

Shiga suffered the fate of many authors who are successful in their early years, combined with the fatal weakness of authors specializing in the autobiographical novel – after a while there is little or nothing left to write about. During the last 35 years of his life he occasionally appeared as a guest writer in various literary journals, where he reminisced about his early association with various Shirakaba school writers, or his former interest in Christianity, and he was given the title Shosetsu no Kami-sama (“God of Fiction”) by his fans, but he produced very little new work. He died of pneumonia, after a long illness, at the age of 88.

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Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 4:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Vessel

Because another day brings to light what another day brings,
the anchor gripped for a second then slipped
and nothing of any consequence happened.

Because the motion must be constant,
because the motion subsumes all that comes in contact,
the idea of the ship slides, and, its function forgotten,

the day is no longer a ship but a vessel,
the descent undramatic, slow enough
to go unnoticed by those unacquainted

with the art of the voyage, but this vessel is leaning,
that shore no harbor to hope for.

—Brian Henry

Image by Max Khokhlov

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Brian Henry has published three books of poetry– Astronaut (2000), American Incident (2002), and Graft (2003). His fourth book, Quarantine, won the 2003 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and will be publish by Ahsahta Press in 2006. He has been an editor of Verse since 1995, and he regularly writes poetry criticism for such publications as the TLS, Boston Review, and Jacket. He is working on a collection of critical essays on contemporary American poetry. He lives in Athens, Georgia with his family.

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Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 3:35 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Another Ignoramus, Please

Emile Zola passed the Sorbonne’s written exams in science and mathematics but failed in the language and literature orals; he forgot the date of Charlemagne’s death, he thoroughly botched the German reading test, and he somehow misinterpreted a simple fable. His attempt two months later to enter the University of Marseilles ended even more disastrously. His performance on the written entrance exam was so atrocious that he didn’t even take the orals. He lamented in a letter to his friend Paul Cézanne, “I’m a total ignoramus!” Later, he wrote Nana and other popular novels, and was the founder of the Naturalist movement in literature.

Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 3:01 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Between Words

” The space we breathe is also called distance. . .”

— Linda Gregg

The trail to the ocean is steep.
The grass we walk through, high and wet.
I hear clear wind sighing
through slender pine, silence
between your words:
that place your loneliness lives
where I want to slip under,
move unbroken as stone.
I know where your pulse quickens
feels like water, too deep.
I know you think you might fold into yourself,
as stars do, where words might not matter.
This place you won’t go to let me hold you
is where I have gone.

—Karen Benke

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Karen Benke

Karen Benke received her M.A. in Writing from the University of San Francisco and her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from California State University, Chico. She is the author of Sister (Conflu:X Press, 2004), a chapbook of poetry. Her work is published in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, including Ploughshares, Hawaii Pacific Review, Runes, Poetry East, Tifert, Rockhurst Review, Clackamas Literary Review, HeartLodge, and Woman Prayers: Prayers by Women from Throughout History and Around the World (HarperCollins, 2003). She has received Individual and Community Artist Grants from the Marin Arts Council and was awarded writing residencies from Hedgebrook and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. A poet-teacher for 16 years with the California Poets in the Schools program, she holds a Masters Level certificate in Intuition Medicine from the Academy of Intuition Medicine, and is a writing guide for both adults and children. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband, a screenwriter and arts attorney, and their eight year-old son.

Prior to reaching these lofty and well-deserved heights, Karen worked as a short-order cook, administrative assistant, receptionist, waitress, babysitter, bookseller, and kayak guide, all of which contributed immeasurably to the depth and honesty of her work.

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Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 4:30 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Where Death was a Daily Visitor

FROM The Triumph Of The Egg by Sherwood Anderson

MY TALE does not primarily concern itself with the hen. If correctly told it will center on the egg. For ten years my father and mother struggled to make our chicken farm pay and then they gave up that struggle and began another. They moved into the town of Bidwell, Ohio, and embarked in the restaurant business. After ten years of worry with incubators that did not hatch, and with tiny — and in their own way lovely — balls of fluff that passed on into semi-naked pullethood and from that into dead henhood, we threw all aside and packing our belongings on a wagon drove down Griggs’s Road toward Bidwell, a tiny caravan of hope looking for a new place from which to start on our upward journey through life.

We must have been a sad-looking lot, not, I fancy, unlike refugees fleeing from a battlefield. Mother and I walked in the road. The wagon that contained our goods had been borrowed for the day from Mr. Albert Griggs, a neighbour. Out of its sides stuck the legs of cheap chairs and at the back of the pile of beds, tables, and boxes filled with kitchen utensils was a crate of live chickens and on top of that the baby carriage in which I had been wheeled about in my infancy. Why we stuck to the baby carriage I don’t know. It was unlikely other children would be born and the wheels were broken. People who have few possessions cling tightly to those they have. That is one of the facts that make life so discouraging.

Father rode on top of the wagon. He was then a bald-headed man of forty-five, a little fat and from long association with mother and the chickens he had become habitually silent and discouraged. All during our ten years on the chicken farm he had worked as a labourer on neighboring farms and most of the money he had earned had been spent for remedies to cure chicken diseases, on Wilmer’s White Wonder Cholera Cure or Professor Bidlow’s Egg Producer or some other preparations that mother found advertised in the poultry papers. There were two little patches of hair on father’s head just above his ears. I remember that as a child I used to sit looking at him when he had gone to sleep in a chair before the stove on Sunday afternoons in the winter. I had at that time already begun to read books and have notions of my own and the bald path that led over the top of his head was, I fancied, something like a broad road, such a road as Caesar might have made on which to lead his legions out of Rome and into the wonders of an unknown world. The tufts of hair that grew above father’s ears were, I thought, like forests. I fell into a half-sleeping, half-waking state and dreamed I was a tiny thing going along the road into a far beautiful place where there were no chicken farms and where life was a happy eggless affair.

One might write a book concerning our flight from the chicken farm into town. Mother and I walked the entire eight miles — she to be sure that nothing fell from the wagon and I to see the wonders of the world. On the seat of the wagon beside father was his greatest treasure. I will tell you of that.

On a chicken farm where hundreds and even thousands of chickens come out of eggs surprising things sometimes happen. Grotesques are born out of eggs as out of people. The thing does not often occur — perhaps once in a thousand births. A chicken is, you see, born that has four legs, two pairs of wings, two heads or what not. The things do not live. They go quickly back to the hand of their maker that has for a moment trembled. The fact that the poor little things could not live was one of the tragedies of life to father. He had some sort of notion that if he could but bring into henhood or roosterhood a five-legged hen or a two-headed rooster his fortune would be made. He dreamed of taking the wonder about to county fairs and of growing rich by exhibiting it to other farm-hands.

At any rate he saved all the little monstrous things that had been born on our chicken farm. They were preserved in alcohol and put each in its own glass bottle. These he had carefully put into a box and on our journey into town it was carried on the wagon seat beside him. He drove the horses with one hand and with the other clung to the box. When we got to our destination the box was taken down at once and the bottles removed. All during our days as keepers of a restaurant in the town of Bidwell, Ohio, the grotesques in their little glass bottles sat on a shelf back of the counter. Mother sometimes protested but father was a rock on the subject of his treasure. The grotesques were, he declared, valuable. People, he said, liked to look at strange and wonderful things.

Did I say that we embarked in the restaurant business in the town of Bidwell, Ohio? I exaggerated a little. The town itself lay at the foot of a low hill and on the shore of a small river. The railroad did not run through the town and the station was a mile away to the north at a place called Pickleville. There had been a cider mill and pickle factory at the station but before the time of our coming they had both gone out of business. In the morning and in the evening busses came down to the station along a road called Turner’s Pike from the hotel on the main street of Bidwell. Our going to the out of the way place to embark in the restaurant business was mother’s idea. She talked of it for a year and then one day went off and rented an empty store building opposite the railroad station. It was her idea that the restaurant would be profitable. Travelling men, she said, would be always waiting around to take trains out of town and town people would come to the station to await incoming trains. They would come to the restaurant to buy pieces of pie and drink coffee. Now that I am older I know that she had another motive in going. She was ambitious for me. She wanted me to rise in the world, to get into a town school, and become a man of the towns.

At Pickleville father and mother worked hard as they always had done. At first there was the necessity of putting our place into shape to be a restaurant. That took a month. Father built a shelf on which he put tins of vegetables. He painted a sign on which he put his name in large red letters. Below his name was the sharp command — “Eat Here” — that was so seldom obeyed. A show case was bought and filled with cigars and tobacco. Mother scrubbed the floor and the walls of the room. I went to school in the town and was glad to be away from the farm and from the presence of the discouraged, sad-looking chickens. Still I was not very joyous. In the evening I walked home from school along Turner’s Pike and remembered the children I had seen playing in the town school yard. A troop of little girls had gone hopping about and singing. I tried that. Down along the frozen road I went hopping solemnly on one leg. “Hippity Hop To The Barber Shop,” I sang shrilly. Then I stopped and looked doubtfully about. I was afraid of being seen in my gay mood. It must have seemed to me that I was doing a thing that should not be done by one who, like myself, had been raised on a chicken farm where death was a daily visitor.

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Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 4:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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One of Calvin Coolidge’s associates objected when the name of a certain industrialist was put forward for inclusion in the cabinet. “But, Mr. President, he’s a son of a bitch!”

Well, don’t you think they ought to be represented, too?” said Coolidge.

Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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In The House

I am attracted by the dust
and silence of an upper shelf,
the strange air

that causes linoleum
to bulge in the cellar.
I know the walls come to hug

like grizzlies
if you stare at them too long,
and the kitchen knife

wants to be held.
I sense the aromas of sex,
the delicate, stale drift

of arguments and spite
no amount of cleaning will solve.
I know when love goes

it slips through all insulation,
forgets your name,
becomes sky.

—Stephen Dunn

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Dunn was born in Forest Hills, NY in 1939, and earned his BA in History from Hofstra University in 1962. He attended the New School 1964 to 1966 and received his Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in 1970. He’s the author of sixteen books, including Different Hours, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Stephen Dunn

Since 1974 he has taught at Richard Stockton College of NJ, where he is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. He’s also been a Visiting Professor at The University of Washington, NYU, Columbia, and The University of Michigan.

He has read his poetry at The Library of Congress, and at many universities and colleges throughout the country.

In addition to his books, his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, the New Republic, the New Yorker, The Georgia Review, and the American Poetry Review, to name just a few.

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Image by George Tooker
Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 5:33 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Marquand, Dogwalker

J P Marquand was looked down on by his aristocratic Sedgwick in-laws, who refused to take his writing seriously. One vacation when Marquand and his wife went to stay at her parental home, his brother-in-law, A C Sedgwick, was also staying there, also engaged in writing a book. The two writers occupied rooms on opposite sides of the main hall, spending most of the day at their desks. One afternoon Marquand’s mother-in-law came into his room with her son’s dog on a leash, and asked Marquand to take the animal out for its daily exercise, since A C  could not do it himself. “He’s writing, you know,” she said in explanation.

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Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 5:11 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Parable for a Certain Virgin

Dorothy Parker

Oh, ponder, friend, the porcupine;
Refresh your recollection,
And sit a moment, to define
His means of self-protection.

How truly fortified is he!
Where is the beast his double
In forethought of emergency
And readiness for trouble?

Recall his figure, and his shade-
How deftly planned and clearly
For slithering through the dappled glade
Unseen, or pretty nearly.

Yet should an alien eye discern
His presence in the woodland,
How little has he left to learn
Of self-defense! My good land!

For he can run, as swift as sound,
To where his goose may hang high-
Or thrust his head against the ground
And tunnel half to Shanghai;

Or he can climb the dizziest bough-
Unhesitant, mechanic-
And, resting, dash from off his brow
The bitter beads of panic;

Or should pursuers press him hot,
One scarcely needs to mention
His quick and cruel barbs, that got
Shakespearean attention;

Or driven to his final ditch,
To his extremest thicket,
He’ll fight with claws and molars (which
Is not considered cricket).

How amply armored, he, to fend
The fear of chase that haunts him!
How well prepared our little friend!-
And who the devil wants him?

—Dorothy Parker

Recited by the Poet Dorothy Parker

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Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 5:00 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Horace Greeley had one linguistic quirk: he insisted that the word “news” was plural. Accordingly, he once sent a cable to a member of the Tribune staff that read: “ARE THERE ANY NEWS?” Back came the reply: “NOT A NEW.”

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 4:25 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Return

I often dream about the ocean
and would like to write
a long ode to water, because I live
on a drought stricken flood plain
next to a sea where a baked delta
opens between glittering sandstone cliffs
& the dunes and beaches make holiday resorts
seem like colonies in outer space.
Where are the green islands? Where are
the sticky hibiscus flowers,
the paddocks full of clover and grass,
the intricate mangrove swamps
& the mud that squelches between your toes?
Instead I am covered in salt —
the same brother you forgot
whose wounds were like rumours
of the rains’ failure
but who returns even so, just as the wet arrives
after weeks of dry storm lightning out to sea
& who stands in front of you
dressed in his flash city clothes
but suddenly shy, like a stranger embarrassed
by wet footprints and tears
& the sudden atmosphere of drama.

—John Forbes

Image: “Beach House” by Lois Gold

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Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 4:16 PM  Comments (2)  
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Their Rich and Imminent Destiny

FROM Intruder In The Dust by William Faulkner

IT WAS JUST NOON that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. He was there, waiting. He was the first one, standing lounging trying to look occupied or at least innocent, under the shed in front of the closed blacksmith’s shop across the street from the jail where his uncle would be less likely to see him if or rather when he crossed the Square toward the postoffice for the eleven o’clock mail.

Because he knew Lucas Beauchamp too—as well that is as any white person knew him. Better than any maybe unless it was Carothers Edmonds on whose place Lucas lived seventeen miles from town, because he had eaten a meal in Lucas’ house. It was in the early winter four years ago; he had been only twelve then and it had happened this way: Edmonds was a friend of his uncle; they had been in school at the same time at the State University, where his uncle had gone after he came back from Harvard and Heidelberg to learn enough law to get himself chosen County Attorney, and the day before Edmonds had come in to town to see his uncle on some county business and had stayed the night with them and at supper that evening Edmonds had said to him:

“Come out home with me tomorrow and go rabbit hunting:” and then to his mother: “I’ll send him back in tomorrow afternoon. I’ll send a boy along with him while he’s out with his gun:” and then to him again: “He’s got a good dog.”

“He’s got a boy,” his uncle said and Edmonds said:

“Does his boy run rabbits too?” and his uncle said:

“We’ll promise he won’t interfere with yours.”

So the next morning he and Aleck Sander went home with Edmonds. It was cold that morning, the first winter cold-snap, the hedgerows were rimed and stiff with frost and the standing water in the roadside drainage ditches was skimmed with ice and even the edges of the running water in the Nine Mile branch glinted fragile and scintillant like fairy glass and from the first farmyard they passed and then again and again and again came the windless tang of woodsmoke and they could see in the back yards the black iron pots already steaming while women in the sunbonnets still of summer or men’s old felt hats and long men’s overcoats stoked wood under them and the men with croker sack aprons tied with wire over their overalls whetted knives or already moved about the pens where hogs grunted and squealed, not quite startled, not alarmed but just alerted as though sensing already even though only dimly their rich and imminent destiny; by nightfall the whole land would be hung with their spectral intact tallow colored empty carcasses immobilized by the heels in attitudes of frantic running as though full tilt at the center of the earth.

Image: “Old Barn” by Dawson Napps

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Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 3:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Tom from Tarwater?

FROM “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” a short story by Flannery O’Connor

THE old woman and her daughter were sitting on their porch when Mr. Shiftlet came up their road for the first time. The old woman slid to the edge of her chair and leaned forward, shading her eyes from the piercing sunset with her hand. The daughter could not see far in front of her and continued to play with her fingers. Although the old woman lived in this desolate spot with only her daughter and she had never seen Mr. Shiftlet before, she could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of. His left coat sleeve was folded up to show there was only half an arm in it and his gaunt figure listed slightly to the side as if the breeze were pushing him. He had on a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up ill the front and down in the back and he carried a till tool box by a handle. He came on, at an amble, up her road, his bee turned toward the sun which appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain.

The old woman didn’t change her position until he was almost into her yard; then she rose with one hand fisted on her hip. The daughter, a large girl in a short blue organdy dress, saw him all at once and jumped up and began to stamp and point and make excited speechless sounds.

Mr. Shiftlet stopped just inside the yard and set his box on the ground and tipped his hat at her as if she were not in the least afflicted; then he turned toward the old woman and swung the hat all the way off. He had long black slick hair that hung flat from a part in the middle to beyond the tips of his ears on either side. His face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steeltrap jaw. He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.

“Good evening,” the old woman said. She was about the size of a cedar fence post and she had a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head.

The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.

He held the pose for almost fifty seconds and then he picked up his box and came on to the porch and dropped down on the bottom step. “Lady,” he said in a firm nasal voice, “I’d give a fortune to live where I could see me a sun do that every evening.”

“Does it every evening,” the old woman said and sat back down. The daughter sat down too and watched him with a cautious sly look as if he were a bird that had come up very close. He leaned to one side, rooting in his pants pocket, and in a second he brought out a package of chewing gum and offered her a piece. She took it and un peeled it and began to chew without taking her eyes off him. He offered the old woman a piece but she only raised her upper lip to indicate she had no teeth.

Mr. Shiftlet’s pale sharp glance had already passed over everything in the yard-the pump near the corner of the house and the big fig tree that three or four chickens were preparing to roost in -and had moved to a shed where he saw the square rusted back of an automobile. “You ladies drive?” he asked.

“That car ain’t run in fifteen year,” the old woman said. “The day my husband died, it quit running.”

“Nothing is like it used to be, lady,” he said. “The world is almost rotten.”

“That’s right,” the old woman said. “You from around here?”

“Name Tom T. Shiftlet,” he murmured, looking at the tires.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” the old woman said. “Name Lucynell Crater and daughter Lucynell Crater. What you doing around here, Mr. Shiftlet?”

He judged the car to be about a 1928 or ’29 Ford. “Lady,” he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, “lemme tell you something. There’s one of these doctors in Atlanta that’s taken a knife and cut the human heart-the human heart,” he repeated, leaning forward, “out of a man’s chest and held it in his hand,” and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, “and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady,” he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay-colored eyes brightened, “he don’t know no more about it than you or me.”

“That’s right,” the old woman said.

“Why, if he was to take that knife and cut into every corner of it, he still wouldn’t know no more than you or me. What you want to bet?”

“Nothing,” the old woman said wisely. “Where you come from, Mr. ShiftIet ?”

He didn’t answer. He reached into his pocket and brought out a sack of tobacco and a package of cigarette papers and rolled himself a cigarette, expertly with one hand, and attached it in a hanging position to his upper lip. Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe. He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin. The daughter began to make loud noises and to point to his hand and shake her finger at him, but when the flame was just before touching him, he leaned down with his hand cupped over it as if he were going to set fire to his nose and lit the cigarette.

He flipped away the dead match and blew a stream of gray into the evening. A sly look came over his face. “Lady,” he said, “nowadays, people’ll do anything anyways. I can tell you my name is Tom T. ShiftIet and I come from Tarwater, Tennessee, but you never have seen me before: how you know I ain’t lying? How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks, lady, and I come from Singleberry, Georgia, or how you know it’s not George Speeds and I come from Lucy, Alabama, or how you know I ain’t Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?”

“I don’t know nothing about you,” the old woman muttered, irked.

“Lady,” he said, “people don’t care how they lie. Maybe the best I can tell you is, I’m a man; but listen lady,” he said and paused and made his tone more ominous still, “what is a man?”

The old woman began to gum a seed. “What you carry in that tin box, Mr. ShiftIet?” she asked.

“Tools,” he said, put back. ”I’m a carpenter.”

“Well, if you come out here to work, I’ll be able to feed you and give you a place to sleep but I can’t pay. I’ll tell you that before you begin,” she said.

There was no answer at once and no particular expression on his face. He leaned back against the two-by-four that helped support the porch roof. “Lady,” he said slowly, “there’s some men that some things mean more to them than money.” The old woman rocked without comment and the daughter watched the trigger that moved up and down in his neck. He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money, but he asked what a man was made for. He asked her if a man was made for money, or what. He asked her what she thought she was made for but she didn’t answer, she only sat rocking and wondered if a one-armed man could put a new roof on her garden house. He asked a lot of questions that she didn’t answer. He told her that he was twenty-eight years old and had lived a varied life. He had been a gospel singer, a foreman on the railroad, an assistant in an undertaking parlor, and he come over the radio for three months with Uncle Roy and his Red Creek Wranglers. He said he had fought and bled in the Arm Service of his country and visited every foreign land and that everywhere he had seen people that didn’t care if they did a thing one way or another. He said he hadn’t been raised thataway.

A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens. He said that a man had to escape to the country to see the world whole and that he wished he lived in a desolate place like this where he could see the sun go down every evening like God made it to do.

“Are you married or are you single?” the old woman asked. There was a long silence. “Lady,” he asked finally, “where would you find you an innocent woman today? I wouldn’t have any of this trash I could just pick up.”

The daughter was leaning very far down, hanging her head almost between her knees watching him through a triangular door she had made in her overturned hair; and she suddenly fell in a heap on the floor and began to whimper. Mr. Shiftlet straightened her out and helped her get back in the chair.

“Is she your baby girl?” he asked.

“My only,” the old woman said “and she’s the sweetest girl in the world. I would give her up for nothing on earth. She’s smart too. She can sweep the floor, cook, wash, feed the chickens, and hoe. I wouldn’t give her up for a casket of jewels.”

“No,” he said kindly, “don’t ever let any man take her away from you.”

“Any man come after her,” the old woman said, “‘ll have to stay around the place.”

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Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 6:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A certain actor, negotiating a contract with Samuel Goldwyn, declared, “I’m asking fifteen hundred a week.” “You’re not asking fifteen hundred a week,” snapped Goldwyn, “you’re asking twelve, and I’m giving you a thousand.”

Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 5:00 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Smell and Envy

You nature poets think you’ve got it, hostaged
somewhere in Vermont or Oregon,
so it blooms and withers only for you,
so all you have to do is name it: primrose
— and now you’re writing poetry, and now
you ship it off to us, to smell and envy.

But we are made of newspaper and smoke
and we dunk your roses in vats of blue.
Birds don’t call, our pigeons play it close
to the vest. When the moon is full
we hear it in the sirens. The Pleiades
you could probably buy downtown. Gravity
is the receiver on the hook. Mortality
we smell on certain people as they pass.

—Douglas Goetsch

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Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 4:56 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Dogfight over the Channel, 3 September 1940

Richard Hillary

September 3 dawned dark and overcast, with a slight breeze ruffling the waters of the Estuary. Hornchurch aerodrome, twelve miles east of London, wore its usual morning pallor of yellow fog, lending an added air of grimness to the dimly silhouetted Spitfires around the boundary. From time to time a balloon would poke its head grotesquely through the mist as though looking for possible victims before falling back like some tired monster.

We came out on to the tarmac at about eight o’clock. During the night our machines had been moved from the Dispersal Point over to the hangars. All the machine tools, oil, and general equipment had been left on the far side of the aerodrome. I was worried. We had been bombed a short time before, and my plane had been fitted out with a new cockpit hood. This hood unfortunately would not slide open along its groove; and with a depleted ground staff and no tools, I began to fear it never would. Unless it did open, I shouldn’t be able to bale out in a hurry if I had to. Miraculously, ‘Uncle George’ Denholm, our Squadron Leader, produced three men with a heavy file and lubricating oil, and the corporal fitter and I set upon the hood in a fury of haste. We took it turn by turn, filing and oiling, oiling and filing, until at last the hood began to move. But agonizingly slowly: by ten o’clock, when the mist had cleared and the sun was blazing out of a clear sky, the hood was still sticking firmly halfway along the groove; at 10.15, what I had feared for the last hour happened. Down the loudspeaker came the emotionless voice of the controller: ‘603 Squadron take off and patrol base; you will receive further orders in the air: 603 Squadron take off as quickly as you can, please.’ As I pressed the starter and the engine roared into life, the corporal stepped back and crossed his fingers significantly. I felt the usual sick feeling in the pit of the stomach, as though I were about to row a race, and then I was too busy getting into position to feel anything.

Uncle George and the leading section took off in a cloud of dust; Brian Carbury looked across and put up his thumbs. I nodded and opened up, to take off for the last time from Hornchurch. I was flying No.3 in Brian’s section, with Stapme Stapleton on the right: the third section consisted of only two machines, so that our Squadron strength was eight. We headed south-east, climbing all out on a steady course. At about 12,000 feet we came up through the clouds: I looked down and saw them spread out below me like layers of whipped cream. The sun was brilliant and made it difficult to see even the next plane when turning. I was peering anxiously ahead, for the controller had given us warning of at least fifty enemy fighters approaching very high. When we did first sight them, nobody shouted, as I think we all saw them at the same moment. They must have been 500 to 1000 feet above us and coming straight on like a swarm of locusts. I remember cursing and going automatically into line astern: the next moment we were in among them and it was each man for himself. As soon as they saw us they spread out and dived, and the next ten minutes was a blur of twisting machines and tracer bullets. One Messerschmitt went down in a sheet of flame on my right, and a Spitfire hurtled past in a half-roll; I was weaving and turning in a desperate attempt to gain height, with the machine practically hanging on the air-screw. Then, just below me and to my left, I saw what I had been praying for—a Messerschmitt climbing and away from the sun. I closed in to 200 yards, and from slightly to one side gave him a two-second burst: fabric ripped off the wing and black smoke poured from the engine, but he did not go down. Like a fool, I did not break away, but put in another three-second burst. Red flames shot upwards and he spiraled out of sight. At that moment, I felt a terrific explosion which knocked the control stick from my hand, and the whole machine quivered like a stricken animal. In a second, the cockpit was a mass of flames: instinctively, I reached up to open the hood. It would not move. I tore off my straps and managed to force it back; but this took time, and when I dropped back into the seat and reached for the stick in an effort to turn the plane on its back, the heat was so intense that I could feel myself going. I remember a second of sharp agony, remember thinking, ‘So this is it!’ and putting both hands to my eyes. Then I passed out.

When I regained consciousness I was free of the machine and falling rapidly. I pulled the rip-cord of my parachute and checked my descent with a jerk. Looking down, I saw that my left trouser leg was burnt off, that I was going to fall into the sea, and that the English coast was deplorably far away. About twenty feet above the water, I attempted to undo my parachute, failed, and flopped into the sea with it billowing round me. I was told later that the machine went into a spin at about 25,000 feet and that at 10,000 feet I fell out – unconscious. This may well have been so, for I discovered later a large cut on the top of my head, presumably collected while bumping round inside.

The water was not unwarm and I was pleasantly surprised to find that my life-jacket kept me afloat. I looked at my watch: it was not there. Then, for the first time, I noticed how burnt my hands were: down to the wrist, the skin was dead white and hung in shreds: I felt faintly sick from the smell of burnt flesh. By closing one eye I could see my lips, jutting out like motor tires. The side of my parachute harness was cutting into me particularly painfully, so that I guessed my right hip was burnt. I made a further attempt to undo the harness, but owing to the pain of my hands, soon desisted. Instead, I lay back and reviewed my position: I was a long way from land; my hands were burnt, and so, judging from the pain of the sun, was my face; it was unlikely that anyone on shore had seen me come down and even more unlikely that a ship would come by; I could float for possibly four hours in my Mae West. I began to feel that I had perhaps been premature in considering myself lucky to have escaped from the machine. After about half an hour my teeth started chattering, and to quiet them I kept up a regular tuneless chant, varying it from time to time with calls for help. There can be few more futile pastimes than yelling for help alone in the North Sea, with a solitary seagull for company, yet it gave me a certain melancholy satisfaction, for I had once written a short story in which the hero (falling from a liner) had done just this. It was rejected.

The water now seemed much colder and I noticed with surprise that the sun had gone in though my face was still burning. I looked down at my hands, and not seeing them, realized that I had gone blind. So I was going to die. It came to me like that—I was going to die, and I was not afraid. This realization came as a surprise. The manner of my approaching death appalled and horrified me, but the actual vision of death left me unafraid: I felt only a profound curiosity and a sense of satisfaction that within a few minutes or a few hours I was to learn the great answer. I decided that it should be in a few minutes. I had no qualms about hastening my end and, reaching up, I managed to unscrew the valve of my Mae West. The air escaped in a rush and my head went under water. It is said by people who have all but died in the sea that drowning is a pleasant death. I did not find it so. I swallowed a large quantity of water before my head came up again, but derived little satisfaction from it. I tried again, to find that I could not get my face under. I was so enmeshed in my parachute that I could not move. For the next ten minutes, I tore my hands to ribbons on the spring-release catch. It was stuck fast. I lay back exhausted, and then I started to laugh. By this time I was probably not entirely normal and I doubt if my laughter was wholly sane, but there was something irresistibly comical in my grand gesture of suicide being so simply thwarted.

Goethe once wrote that no one, unless he had led the full life and realized himself completely, had the right to take his own life. Providence seemed determined that I should not incur the great man’s displeasure.

It is often said that a dying man relives his whole life in one rapid kaleidoscope. I merely thought gloomily of the Squadron returning, of my mother at home, and of the few people who would miss me. Outside my family, I could count them on the fingers of one hand. What did gratify me enormously was to find that I indulged in no frantic abasements or prayers to the Almighty. It is an old jibe of God-fearing people that the irreligious always change their tune when about to die: I was pleased to think that I was proving them wrong. Because I seemed to be in for an indeterminate period of waiting, I began to feel a terrible loneliness and sought for some means to take my mind off my plight. I took it for granted that I must soon become delirious, and I attempted to hasten the process: I encouraged my mind to wander vaguely and aimlessly, with the result that I did experience a certain peace. But when I forced myself to think of something concrete, I found that I was still only too lucid. I went on shuttling between the two with varying success until I was picked up. I remember as in a dream hearing somebody shout: it seemed so far away and quite unconnected with me.

Then willing arms were dragging me over the side; my parachute was taken off (and with such ease!); a brandy flask was pushed between my swollen lips; a voice said, ‘OK, Joe, it’s one of ours and still kicking’; and I was safe. I was neither relieved nor angry; I was past caring.

It was to the Margate lifeboat that l owed my rescue. Watchers on the coast had seen me come down, and for three hours they had been searching for me. Owing to wrong directions, they were just giving up and turning back for land when ironically enough one of them saw my parachute. They were then fifteen miles east of Margate.

While in the water I had been numb and had felt very little pain. Now that I began to thaw out, the agony was such that I could have cried out. The good fellows made me as comfortable as possible, put up some sort of awning to keep the sun from my face, and phoned through for a doctor. It seemed to me to take an eternity to reach shore. I was put into an ambulance and driven rapidly to hospital. Through all this I was quite conscious, though unable to see. At the hospital they cut off my uniform, I gave the requisite information to a nurse about my next of kin, and then, to my infinite relief, felt a hypodermic syringe pushed into my arm.

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Published in: on January 25, 2010 at 4:32 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Elk

That it was — fleshwarm, earthen, a marvelous
breathing thing. And the glance, a lastingness from cornea,
milky, asking sky. And if you had seen the great beast

fall — unsure, to its knees, then struggle the leaden head —
gaiting a few yards, before collapsing, antlers first, like a black oak’s
crown, top-heavy into earth, you might worship the stubborn

gravity of land, and the garden, sudden its insides: Harvest
of soft, wet rocks, melons, — or is it a cave where the menses
of a secret ocean have dried? — Blood from the mouth. Tongue,

beard-black, says death. — And teeth, yellow seeds, from which all
these boulders grew? And here’s the intestine’s white chain mottled
brown, its lumen narrowing down like a perfect sentence

pronounced by God. And here’s the great comma of each lung,
bellows undone. And here’s the slug, a period in the heart’s
balloon. And now this sunrise of flora and fauna

laid out, bloody map of the thing apart, and you
the hunter, instructionless, emptied of passion, crossing
green rivers, climbing red cliffs of meat, pulling off

the hide, walking out into another life, down the femur
to knuckly knee, you fall on the ground to worship
the bluestone and glass of each hoof, spoor lost

among root-sort. And now, shearing the meat from bone,
pulling the backstraps from spine, separating the loin,
hacking the fat from hide, whittling the pink from ribs, all

thirteen pair sculpting the air, jailing the light. — Spirit out,
spirit out. The head in a tree is a tree gazing toward
the wind-singing cage, toward the invisible bird of the heart.

—Mark Irwin

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Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 1:33 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Reporter with the Vietcong, 1965

The Vietnam War: A Reporter with the Vietcong, near Hanoi, 10 December 1965

James Cameron

Relentless US bombing of North Vietnam was a feature of the Vietnam War.

Through the daylight hours nothing moves on the roads of North Vietnam, not a car nor a truck. It must look from the air as though the country had no wheeled transport at all. That, of course, is the idea, it is the roads and bridges that are being bombed; it is no longer safe after sunrise to be anywhere near either.

In the paddies the farmers are reaping their third harvest of the year, which has been particularly abundant. They move among the rice with their sickles, bowed under a shawl of foliage, the camouflage that gives everyone a faintly carnival air, like so many Jacks-in-the-Green.

At the corners of the paddies stand what look like sheaves of corn and are stacks of rifles. The roads stretch long and empty, leading from nowhere to nowhere.

Then the sun goes down and everything starts to move.

At dust the roads become alive. The engines are started and the convoys grind away through the darkness behind the pinpoints of masked headlamps. There are miles of them, heavy Russian-built trucks, anti-aircraft batteries, all deeply buried under piles of branches and leaves; processions of huge green haystacks. North Vietnam by day is abandoned; by night it thuds and grinds with movement. It is a fatiguing routine: working by day and moving by night.

In this fashion I drove down to what is called the ‘fighting areas’ in the central province of Thanh Hoa. It was a wildly theatrical landscape: a plain studded with strange little precipitous mountains, as though a shower of meteorites had fallen; it was like riding in a Soviet-made Jeep through the middle of a Chinese watercolour. . .

The great showplace of Thanh Hoa is the famous Ham Rong bridge. It has been attacked more than 100 times, by at least 1000 aircraft; it is scarred and pitted and twisted and the area around is a terrible mess, but the bridge still carries the road and the railroad. It lies between two very steep hills, and must be extremely difficult to hit; it would need a very steep and oblique bombing run . . .

At the village of Nanh Ngang, hard by the bridge, I was presented to Miss Nguyen Thi Hang, who is a Labour Hero and a People’s Hero, and is clearly adjusted to a measure of local celebrity as the nation’s Resistance pin-up. She once led a delegation to Moscow.

She is a pert, trim young woman in her late twenties, dressed in the regulation white blouse and broad black trousers; she is pretty, as some 99.9 per cent of all Vietnamese girls are pretty. To have her photograph taken was clearly no great novelty for her.

Miss Hang commands the women’s corps of the Nanh Ngang militia, and she put them through their paces for me—a mock alert, a covey of most nubile little girls popping into foxholes and pointing their rifles at the sky, with Miss Hang gesturing upwards, exactly as in her pictures.

It all seemed so palpably make-believe—this vital bridge defended by a chorus of sweet little girls; I felt awkward and rueful.

And then, in the middle of the performance, as I walked back from the river to the village – the alarm went in all truth, and the war game was real after all, in the sighing howl of jets overhead, the thud of ack-ack, and for all I know, for I could not be sure, a tiny volley from Miss Hang’s young ladies in the foxholes.

The aeroplanes were not after us this time, but streaking homeward south. The village took cover philosophically, but by the time the children were herded into the earth dugouts, the flight was, doubtless, miles away.

There were several such raids while I moved about the country, and it is fair to try to analyse one’s reaction. It is not easy. What supervened, I think, was not the emotion of fear (for I was in no particular danger) nor high-minded horror—there was somehow a sense of outrage against civility: what an impertinence, one felt, what arrogance, what an offence against manners. These people in North Vietnam are agreeable, shy people, and very poor. Will this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

❦❦❦❦❦

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 12:57 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Lineage for Hire

Gladstone, Britain’s famous PM, visiting an antique dealer’s shop, admired an early seventeenth-century oil painting depicting an aristocrat dressed in old Spanish costume with a ruff, plumed hat, and lace cuffs. He wanted it badly but thought the price too high. Sometime later, at the house of a rich London merchant, he came upon the portrait he had so admired. His host, noticing Gladstone’s absorption, approached him. “You like it? It’s a portrait of one of my ancestors, a minister at the Court of Queen Elizabeth.” Said Gladstone: “Three pounds less and he would have been my ancestor.”

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:50 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Lost in Translation

This is a bit out of character for the blog, and I have no intention of turning this into some didactic rant. But among the frustrations for those of us who  select our poetry from an international pallet is that so much is lost in translation despite the best effort, intention and ability of the translator. Below is an example of a favorite Baudelaire poem of mine in the original French and three widely read translations. There are others, including my personal preference, the James McGowan translation of Baudelaire’s The Flowers Of Evil, but these should serve my point:

À une passante

La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;

Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

Charles Baudelaire

To a Passer-By

The street about me roared with a deafening sound.
Tall, slender, in heavy mourning, majestic grief,
A woman passed, with a glittering hand
Raising, swinging the hem and flounces of her skirt;

Agile and graceful, her leg was like a statue’s.
Tense as in a delirium, I drank
From her eyes, pale sky where tempests germinate,
The sweetness that enthralls and the pleasure that kills.

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

—William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

A Passer-by

The deafening street roared on. Full, slim, and grand
In mourning and majestic grief, passed down
A woman, lifting with a stately hand
And swaying the black borders of her gown;

Noble and swift, her leg with statues matching;
I drank, convulsed, out of her pensive eye,
A livid sky where hurricanes were hatching,
Sweetness that charms, and joy that makes one die.

A lighting-flash — then darkness! Fleeting chance
Whose look was my rebirth — a single glance!
Through endless time shall I not meet with you?

Far off! too late! or never! — I not knowing
Who you may be, nor you where I am going —
You, whom I might have loved, who know it too!

—Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

To a Woman Passing By

The deafening road around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, making majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the ornamental hem of her garment,

Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

A gleam… then night! O fleeting beauty,
Your glance has given me sudden rebirth,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, very far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, nor you where I am going,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

—Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

✥❖✥❖✥❖✥❖✥

Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:29 AM  Leave a Comment  
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In Memory of Freud

The motion of water is a lie, we are what moves
over it, to Brindisi or Lisbon,
faces on a ferry looking

at the silver bangles
the water wears.
You missed the beginning when

we were water
and light. What you always believed
you knew is a mistranslation.

No one wants to say
what has really been said. Stand
at the edge of the cliff

to remember whales and water buffalo,
signet rings and stone. Walk out to the pier.
Take in the length

of our yearnings. We were never meant
to walk over water. We were
meant to immerse ourselves

and recall how to move. Go back
in time to beyond time: what were you
doing when minerals formed?

Go back some more and tell me this fossil
is a bone that was your hand.
Maybe you are missing the chapter on Plague

or the chapter that tells you not to
practice in public what you secretly anoint.
These are episodes in the story, not the whole

story, so think of love
and loss as twins that argue then make up
when the air parts

and produces a grammar
of solitude. If the symbol
of longing

is a wire that winds
the circumference of the earth,
you must get on your knees.

—Margot Schilpp

❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅❅

MARGOT SCHILPP’s two books of poetry are The World’s Last Night(2001) and Laws of My Nature (2005), both published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is at work on a third collection, Civil Twilight, from which the poems here come. Her work has appeared widely in journals, including The Southern Review, LIT, Denver Quarterly, American Letters & Commentary, The Journal, The Gettysburg Review, and Hotel Amerika. She has been granted residencies at Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Fundacíon Valparaíso in Spain, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Council on Culture and Tourism. She teaches at Southern Connecticut State University and at the Educational Center for the Arts, an arts high school in New Haven. She lives with her husband, Jeff Mock, and their daughters Paula and Leah.

It has often been said that there is nothing new under the sun, but Margot Schilpp takes that hurdle with ease by dressing her thoughts in fresh language, thus finding ways to present her surroundings in an original way. With the first poem from, The World’s Last Night, “Red-Winged Blackbird,” she instantly pulls us into her thought patterns and her way of viewing the world:

The barbed wire bends across the field
like a hair out of place, though not exactly.
The platinum sky is bleak and it weeps: gray
all day isn’t the only way of grieving.
Longing is a knife that blunts itself

on the dull muscle of the heart. . . .

Who pointed out the beautiful markings of birds?
Summer’s curtain draws across, red-winged
blackbirds weave into the fence, drag
a crimson thread across the eye.

Who can resist such writing—who would want to?

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Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 4:19 PM  Comments (2)  
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The Howrah Mail

View from Howrah Hotel

FROM The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

I SAW HIM at Madras Central, near the Howrah Mail, and, from the hesitant way he was standing, he looked as if he were working up the courage to board. His long hair hung like rags in the heat; his clothes were much washed and faded to pastel colours. His suitcase, a canvas affair, repeated his worn appearance and was bursting at the seams. He was a man, perhaps English, in his early thirties, for whom, I guessed, travel had become an exhausting routine: travel can be an addiction and can change the physique, like drugs, to stringy leanness. A beggar was bent beside him, coughing. The young man, paying no attention to the outstretched hand, continued to stare at the train. I avoided him. The trip to Calcutta was too long to begin making friends so soon. I noticed that when he picked up his bag to board he passed a coin to the beggar. He did it without looking at the coughing man, with embarrassed obedience, like handing over a small admission charge.

My taxi driver had been helpful. He had carried my bag, found me bedding, located my berth, and arranged for me to have a spoon included with my meals. He was about to go. I gave him five rupees – too much. He decided to stay, like an anxious bearer with nothing to bear.

‘You have money?’

I told him I did.

‘Be careful,’ he said. ‘Indians no good. They take from your pockets.’

He showed me how to lock the compartment. He glanced around, scowling at the Indians who passed down the corridor. He told me repeatedly to be careful, and he continued warning me in this vein for so long that I began to believe that my trip up the neck of Andhra Pradesh and through Orissa to Bengal was fraught with danger. Perhaps those bandy-legged Madrasis, spitting betel juice through the windows, were waiting for this man to leave so that they could pounce. And when the driver did leave I felt peculiarly exposed, vulnerable to attack. Most of the time I remained happily alone in my corner seat, and only at moments like this, when a casually met person helped me and passed on, did I feel the absence of his attention. The assisting stranger in India served only to erode my competence: his presence made me a sahib; his presence turned me into a child.

But I was glad to be moving. It was the feeling I’d had on the Direct-Orient Express, on the Frontier Mail, on the Grand Trunk Express: the size, the great length of the train, was a comfort. The bigger the train, the longer the journey, the happier I was – none of the temporary suspense produced by the annoying awareness of the local train’s spots of time. On the long trips I seldom watched the stations pass – the progress of the train didn’t interest me very much. I had learned to become a resident of the express, and I preferred to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch, and bringing my journal up to date in the early evening before having my first drink and deciding where we were on my map. Train travel animated my imagination and usually gave me the solitude to order and write my thoughts: I travelled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language. I cannot imagine a luckier combination.

On my way to the dining car I saw the young man hunched at the window in the passage outside his compartment, breathing the hot dark air. ‘You won’t find much up there,’ he said as I squeezed past. I nodded, and we exchanged the glance of tolerant recognition common to solitary travellers meeting on long-distance trains. I had dinner – the vegetarian special I’d accustomed myself to – and going back I saw the fellow again in the same place. This time, he appeared to be waiting for me. He made no immediate effort to move. He said, ‘How was it?’

‘The usual. I don’t mind – I’m a vegetarian.’

‘It’s not that. It’s the way they eat. It runs down their arms. Puts me off my food. Did you ever see them preparing it? They kick it around, step on it, cough on it. Still, maybe you’ll be lucky.’

We talked about the food; he had brought his own. Then he said, ‘I saw you in Madras, with that bearer. What a hole. Calcutta’s worse. Ever been there?’

I said I hadn’t.

‘Maybe you like that sort of thing. I think it’s a ghastly place.’ He took a last puff of his cigarette and flipped it out the window, the sparks scattering in the dark. ‘Everywhere you look. Horrible.’

An Indian girl was coming towards us. I could have used her approach as an opportunity to pass on, but I waited and we both stepped aside to let her go by. She lowered her eyes and glided along. She had delicate shoulders, dry dusted cheeks, and gleaming hair, and she smelled of some small sweetness like that of a single crushed flower.

‘Pretty girl.’

‘They turn me off,’ he said. ‘You don’t believe me.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I had an Indian girlfriend – prettier than her. That’s why I’m going to Calcutta.’

Is she there?’

‘She’s in Bangalore. Ever been there? It’s not too bad, but I’m glad to be away from it – I mean, from her. Am I keeping you?’

it’s still early.’ So he was fleeing the girl. I wondered why, but I wanted a simple answer. He invited me into his compartment to tell me. Most men, alone, stay up late, lamenting the absence of women. He gave me a shot of Indian gin. It stung my lips but tasted like nothing at all.

He said: ‘She was the daughter of a man I had to see. I don’t know about you, but the first time I came to India I more or less ignored Indian girls. Yes, I found them pretty, but the funny thing about a woman’s beauty is that if you’re absolutely sure you can’t go to bed with her you begin to notice something calculated in her prettiness. I mean, her beauty is completely ineffectual. So she looks plainer, and gets uninteresting until she’s invisible. If she has a good figure you see her as sinister rather than just plain, waiting for you to make a move that’ll land you in jail. You can really develop a hate for these Indian women with their good looks and their useless virtue. That’s why I prefer Muslim countries. They cover up their women and they don’t make any bones about it. No one would be silly enough to tamper with a woman wearing one of those veils. It’s unthinkable. I mean, they don’t even look like women – they look like furniture covered up to keep the dust off. Veils are supposed to be sexy. Veils aren’t sexy – what’s sexy about something four feet high with a sheet over it?

‘That’s how I felt about Indian girls. They were so unapproachable they might as well have had sheets over their heads. The prettier they were the farther away I stayed. I wasn’t interested because I knew they weren’t. You see what I mean? I stopped noticing them. I barely noticed the daughter of this man I had to see. She was padding back and forth, bringing food, tea, the family album, doing the Indian thing. Their name was Bapna, and when the old man left the room the girl spoke up for the first time, asked me where I was staying. I told her.

‘It was about three-thirty in the afternoon. The old man came back. He seemed a bit nervous, but finally got to the point. He said if I was going back to the hotel would I be kind enough to give Primila and her friend a lift? They were going to a film, but it was a long bus ride and they might not get there in time.

‘I said I’d be glad to. The houseboy went and found a taxi. While we were driving into the city, Primila and her friend were talking to the driver, giving him directions and sort of arguing with him about the best route. I said, “Are you school chums?” This made them giggle and pull their saris over their mouths. They were each twenty-two and embarrassed to be mistaken for schoolgirls.

‘Then the taxi stopped. The friend got out and Primila and I drove away. “Where’s this film of yours?” I said. She said it was near my hotel. I asked her what time it started. “It runs all day.”

‘I was just making conversation, and I found that after a few minutes I was talking about a painting I’d bought from a dealer the previous day, a fairly good one, Lakshmi and Vishnu intertwined on a lotus blossom. Primila was so quiet, I became quite talkative. It happens – a person’s reticence makes me talk an awful lot, kind of compensating.

‘At the hotel I said, “I hope you don’t have far to walk.” She said the cinema was right around the corner. I asked her if she had ever been in the hotel before and when she said not I felt sorry for her, as if she’d been excluded from the place because she didn’t have the money. I said, “Want to look it over?” She said yes. We went in. I showed her the restaurants and bars, the newsstand, the curio shop where I’d bought my painting. She was quite interested, walking beside me, taking it all in like a person in a museum.

‘What I think I should have told you first is that about six months ago I was in Madras. I had some time to kill, so one afternoon I visited a palmist, Swami Sundram. He was a leathery old man and his house in Mylapore didn’t have the usual charts and religious pictures and not even many cushions. He sat at a roll-top desk with a pencil and a piece of paper, in a kind of library stacked with mouldy books. He looked at my palm, line by line, then did a diagram on the paper and made notes, circling and underlining them as he went along. He didn’t say a word for ten minutes or so, though he often paused as he was writing to press his forehead, like a person trying to remember something.

‘Finally, he said, “You have been very sick, pains in the stomach, muscle pains, and trouble passing motion.” I almost laughed -1 mean, you don’t have to be a palmist to tell someone in India he’s had stomach trouble. He told me one or two other things, but I said, “Look, I know what’s happened to me – what I want to know is what’s going to happen.”

‘He said, “I see an Indian girl. Classical face, maybe a dancer. You are alone with her.”

‘”Is that all?” I said.

‘ “Not all,” he said. “I see her dancing for you.”

‘Well, naturally, I thought of what Swami Sundram had said when I was with Primila at the hotel. I asked her if she was a dancer, and she said no. Then out on the verandah she said, “I used to do classical dancing when I was younger, if that’s what you mean. But all Indian girls do that.” I suggested tea. She said yes. I said we could have a drink instead. She said “As you say.” I ordered a gin and tonic. She said she wanted rum. I couldn’t believe it. “Real rum?” I said. She giggled, like in the taxi, but didn’t change her mind. When our drinks came we touched glasses and she went silent again.

‘I was barely conscious of talking about my painting, but there wasn’t very much to talk about, and I found I was having trouble describing the thing. Several times, I said, “You should see it.” She said, “I’d like to,” and that annoyed me because it meant I’d have to go upstairs, dig it out, and bring it down. It was in a sealed wrapper because of the dust. I was sorry I’d mentioned it – I’d only done it to keep the conversation going. I could have been having a nice drink alone – relaxing. I need to be alone after seeing people, sort of put myself back together. Lunch with old Bapna had tired me out. I didn’t say anything more.

‘ “Do you have it with you?” she said. I told her it was upstairs and I felt as if I was getting into a corner because I couldn’t refuse to show her. “Would you like to see it?” “Very much,” she said. I said all right, but that it would be a lot easier if she came upstairs. She said fine. “When you finish your drink,” I said. But she had finished her drink. I gulped mine down and we went upstairs. In the room she said, “I hate air conditioners.” I gave the thing a kick and it shut off.

‘We looked at the painting, sitting on the bed – it was the only place to sit – and as she pointed out what was good about it, how the figures were so well done, she reached over and picked it up from my lap. Has a girl ever lifted something from your lap? It gave me a thrill -I felt a surprising voltage in my groin from the light pressure of her hand.

‘She showed me a detail of the picture, and when I looked closer I took her hand, and from the way she let me hold her hand I knew I could kiss her. They don’t show kissing in Indian films. I know why. Because in India there is no such intimacy as a kiss that is not followed by a screw. A tiny particle of affection in India stands for passion, but what amazed me was that the whole thing was her idea, not mine. I had gone to the room with her against my will!

‘I kissed her, and I was so surprised by her eagerness I practically fainted with excitement. I was really happy, and that sort of glee goes against the sex urge, but glee is more temporary than sex, and in a minute or so I was on her. She stayed for about two hours.

Paul Theroux

‘The effect of this on me was incredible, like a conversion. Every woman I saw after that was attractive, and I saw each one as a possible lay. They really turned me on – I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I saw them as coy, clever, geniuses of sexuality who had managed to disguise it all with that busy efficiency Indian women have. I was so assured by what I knew, I didn’t bother to make a pass at any of them. But most of all I began to see some sense in what Swami Sundram had said: “She will dance for you.” Obviously Primila was the girl he meant. I saw her a few more times and I really fell for her – I think even old Bapna suspected something was going on because he asked me a lot of questions about my family, and what sort of work did I do, and what were my plans? Primila talked a lot about leaving India and one day she turned up in a blouse and slacks. She looked insolent in Western clothes, but, as I say, I was beginning to love her and I imagined having one of those fantastic Indian weddings. Primila said she had always wanted to go to England – she had read so much about it, that sort of thing. I could see what was happening.

‘Swami Sundram predicted it, I suppose, so the next chance I got I went to Madras, and to be absolutely sure he wouldn’t recognize me I shaved off my beard and wore different clothes. This time I had to wait outside his house until he finished with another customer, and when I got inside he went through the same business of the diagrams and the notes. I didn’t let on that I’d been there before. Then he said, “Head pains. I see many head pains, something like headache.” I told him to go on. “You are expecting an important letter,” he said. He pressed his temples. “You will receive this letter soon.” I asked him if that was all. “No,” he said, “you have a large mole on your penis.” “No, I don’t,” I said. But he stuck to his story. He said, “You most certainly do.” It amazed me that he should keep telling me that I had a mole on my penis while I was denying it and could even prove how wrong he was. He seemed rather irritated that I should contradict him. I paid him and left.

‘That was yesterday. I didn’t go back to Bangalore. I bought a ticket to Calcutta. I’m leaving – flying to Bangkok. If I hadn’t seen that Swami I might be married now, or at least betrothed – it’s the same thing. She was a nice girl, but I must have bad karma, and I don’t have a mole on my penis. I looked.

‘Pass the bottle,’ he said. He took a swig and said, ‘Never go back to a palmist.’

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Paul Theroux photo by William Furniss
Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Death of Socrates, 399 BC

Plato

Socrates had been condemned to death for ‘corruption of the young’ and ‘neglect of the gods’. He remained in prison for a month after sentence until the sacred ship had returned from Delos: during its absence no execution could take place. Xanthippe was Socrates’ wife: he had three sons by her. Plato was not an eye-witness of the death, but was in close touch with those who were.

I will try to tell you everything from the beginning. On the previous days I and the others had always been in the habit of visiting Socrates. We used to meet at daybreak in the court where the trial took place, for it was near the prison; and every day we used to wait about, talking with each other, until the prison was opened, for it was not opened early; and when it was opened, we went in to Socrates and passed most of the day with him. On that day we came together earlier; for the day before, when we left the prison in the evening we heard that the ship had arrived from Delos. So we agreed to come to the usual place as early in the morning as possible. And we came, and the gaoler who usually answered the door came out and told us to wait and not go in until he told us. ‘For’, he said, ‘the eleven are releasing Socrates from his fetters and giving directions how he is to die today.’ So after a little delay he came and told us to go in. We went in then and found Socrates just released from his fetters and Xanthippe – you know her – with his little son in her arms, sitting beside him. Now when Xanthippe saw us, she cried out and said the kind of thing that women always do say: ‘Oh Socrates, this is the last time now that your friends will speak to you or you to them.’ And Socrates glanced at Crito and said, ‘Crito, let somebody take her home.’ And some of Crito’s people took her away wailing and beating her breast. But Socrates sat up on his couch and bent his leg and rubbed it with his hand, and while he was rubbing it, he said, ‘What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it, he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think’, he said, ‘if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.’

When he had finished speaking, Crito said, ‘Well, Socrates, do you wish to leave any directions with us about your children or anything else—anything we can do to serve you?’

‘What I always say, Crito,’ he replied, ‘nothing new. If you take care of yourselves you will serve me and mine and yourselves, whatever you do, even if you make no promises now; but if you neglect yourselves and are not willing to live following step by step, as it were, in the path marked out by our present and past discussions, you will accomplish nothing, no matter how much or how eagerly you promise at present.’

‘We will certainly try hard to do as you say,’ he replied. ‘But how shall we bury you?’

‘However you please,’ he replied, ‘if you can catch me and I do not get away from you.’ And he laughed gently, and looking towards us, said, ‘I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse, and he asks how to bury me. And though I have been saying at great length that after I drink the poison I shall no longer be with you, but shall go away to the joys of the blessed you know of, he seems to think that was idle talk uttered to encourage you and myself. ‘So,’ he said, ‘give security for me to Crito, the opposite of that which he gave the judges at my trial; for he gave security that I would remain, but you must give security that I shall not remain when I die, but shall go away, so that Crito may bear it more easily, and may not be troubled when he sees my body being burned or buried, or think I am undergoing terrible treatment, and may not say at the funeral that he is laying out Socrates, or following him to the grave, or burying him. For, dear Crito, you may be sure that such wrong words are not only undesirable in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. No, you must be of good courage, and say that you bury my body – and bury it as you think best and as seems to you most fitting.’

When he had said this, he got up and went into another room to bathe; Crito followed him, but he told us to wait. So we waited, talking over with each other and discussing the discourse we had heard, and then speaking of the great misfortune that had befallen us, for we felt that he was like a father to us and that when bereft of him we should pass the rest of our lives as orphans. And when he had bathed and his children had been brought to him—for he had two little sons and one big one—and the women of the family had come, he talked with them in Crito’s presence and gave them such directions as he wished; then he told the women to go away, and he came to us. And it was now nearly sunset; for he had spent a long time within. And he came and sat down fresh from the bath. After that not much was said, and the servant of the eleven came and stood beside him and said ‘Socrates, I shall not find fault with you, as I do with others, for being angry and cursing me, when at the behest of the authorities, I tell them to drink the poison. No, I have found you in all this time in every way the noblest and gentlest and best man who has ever come here, and now I know your anger is directed against others, not against me, for you know who are to blame. Now, for you know the message I came to bring you, farewell and try to bear what you must as easily as you can.’ And he burst into tears and turned and went away. And Socrates looked up at him and said, ‘Fare you well, too; I will do as you say.’ And then he said to us, ‘How charming the man is! Ever since I have been here he has been coming to see me and talking with me from time to time, and has been the best of men, and now how nobly he weeps for me! But come, Crito, let us obey him, and let someone bring the poison, if it is ready; and if not, let the man prepare it.’ And Crito said, ‘But I think, Socrates, the sun is still upon the mountains and has not yet set; and I know that others have taken the poison very late, after the order has come to them, and in the meantime have eaten and drunk and some of them enjoyed the society of those whom they loved. Do not hurry; for there is still time.’

And Socrates said, ‘Crito, those whom you mention are right in doing as they do, for they think they gain by it; and I shall be right in not doing as they do; for I think I should gain nothing by taking the poison a little later. I should only make myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I clung to life and spared it, when there is no more profit in it. Come,’ he said, ‘do as I ask and do not refuse.’

Thereupon Crito nodded to the boy who was standing near. The boy went out and stayed a long time, then came back with the man who was to administer the poison, which he brought with him in a cup ready for use. And when Socrates saw him, he said, ‘Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replied, ‘except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.’

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing colour or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said, ‘What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?’ ‘Socrates,’ said he, ‘we prepare only as much as we think is enough.’ ‘I understand,’ said Socrates; ‘but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.’ With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it. Up to that time most of us had been able to restrain our tears fairly well, but when we watched him drinking and saw that he had drunk the poison, we could do so no longer, but in spite of myself my tears rolled down in floods, so that I wrapped my face in my cloak and wept for myself; for it was not for him that I wept, but for my own misfortune in being deprived of such a friend. Crito had got up and gone away even before I did, because he could not restrain his tears. But Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time before, then wailed aloud in his grief and made us all break down, except Socrates himself. But he said, ‘What conduct is this, you strange men! I sent the women away chiefly for this very reason, that they might not behave in this absurd way; for I have heard that it is best to die in silence. Keep quiet and be brave.’ Then we were ashamed and controlled our tears. He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said ‘No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – ‘Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.’ ‘That’, said Crito, ‘shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.’ To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.

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Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 2:16 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Waiting

‘Tis sweet to hear the watch dog’s honest bark
Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home;
’tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming and look brighter when we come.

—Lord Byron

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Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 11:28 PM  Leave a Comment  
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As first consul, Napoleon often worked a sixteen-hour day. He expected that the Council of State would have stamina and zeal to match his own. One night when the councillors began to doze off, he reprimanded them, “Do let’s keep awake, citizens. It’s only two o’clock. We must earn our salaries.” These superhuman efforts were much applauded by Napoleon’s admirers, but not by royalists. One such admirer, singing the first consul’s praises, remarked, “God made Bonaparte and then rested.” An emigre count commented, “God should have rested a little earlier.”

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 10:10 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Call of the Coal

Only the outcasts know
about Cain being in Eden,
Pennsylvania — the trees marked
with a tight slash like a beast’s scratch.
This is new country —
the gorge opening to a split-melon valley
cradled between mountains.
No river flows here, only an unnamed spring
that overflows onto skunk cabbage
and sumac. Wild onion and milkweed
slating unfurled fields
like stalks of Indian maize.

In Bethlehem valley
it’s summer, and miners
speckled with dust sway with moonshine.
Cain’s walking home in shifting light,
watching farmers harvest corn and rye,
wheat and timothy.
He once knew how to break earth,
sift seed from feed,
knew the long hours between dawn and dusk.
But in America, he knows only coal —
the sweet remains of his sacrifice —
the blood that calls him to earth
day after day;
as long as wheat sways in heaven,
he’ll follow the hollowed shafts
that swirl down into the unknown.

—Martin Taylor

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Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 10:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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University Days

James Thurber

FROM James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

I PASSED all the other courses that I took at my university, but I could never pass botany. This was because all botany students had to spend several hours a week in a laboratory looking through a microscope at plant cells, and I could never see through a microscope. I never once saw a cell through a microscope. This used to enrage my instructor. He would wander around the laboratory pleased with the progress all the students were making in drawing the involved and, so I am told, interesting structure of flower cells, until he came to me. I would just be standing there. “I can’t see anything,” I would say. He would begin patiently enough, explaining how anybody can see through a microscope, but he would always end up in a fury, claiming that I could too see through a microscope but just pretended that I couldn’t. “It takes away from the beauty of flowers anyway,” I used to tell him. “We are not concerned with beauty in this course,” he would say. “We are concerned solely with what I may call the mechanics of flars.” “Well,” I’d say, “I can’t see anything.” “Try it just once again,” he’d say, and I would put my eye to the microscope and see nothing at all, except now and again, a nebulous milky substance—a phenomenon of maladjustment. You were supposed to see a vivid, restless clockwork of sharply defined plant cells. “I see what looks like a lot of milk,” I would tell him. This, he claimed, was the result of my not having adjusted the microscope properly; so he would readjust it for me, or rather, for himself. And I would look again and see milk.

I finally took a deferred pass, as they called it, and waited a year and tried again. (You had to pass one of the biological sciences or you couldn’t graduate.) The professor had come back from vacation brown as a berry, bright-eyed, and eager to explain cell-structure again to his classes. “Well,” he said to me, cheerily, when we met in the first laboratory hour of the semester, “we’re going to see cells this time, aren’t we?” “Yes, sir,” I said. Students to right of me and to left of me and in front of me were seeing cells; what’s more, they were quietly drawing pictures of them in their notebooks. Of course, I didn’t see anything.

“We’ll try it,” the professor said to me, grimly, “with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. As God is my witness, I’ll arrange this glass so that you see cells through it or I’ll give up teaching. In twenty-two years of botany, I—” He cut off abruptly for he was beginning to quiver all over, like Lionel Barrymore, and he genuinely wished to hold onto his temper; his scenes with me had taken a great deal out of him.

So we tried it with every adjustment of the microscope known to man. With only one of them did I see anything but blackness or the familiar lacteal opacity, and that time I saw, to my pleasure and amazement, a variegated constellation of flecks, specks, and dots. These I hastily drew. The instructor, noting my activity, came back from an adjoining desk, a smile on his lips and his eyebrows high in hope. He looked at my cell drawing. “What’s that?” he demanded, with a hint of a squeal in his voice. “That’s what I saw,” I said. “You didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” he screamed, losing control of his temper instantly, and he bent over and squinted into the: microscope. His head snapped up. “That’s your eye!” he shouted. “You’ve fixed the lens so that it reflects! You’ve drawn your eye!”

Another course that I didn’t like, but somehow managed to pass, was economics. I went to that class straight from the botany class, which didn’t help me any in understanding either subject. I used to get them mixed up. But not as mixed up as another student in my economics class who came there direct from a physics laboratory. He was a tackle on the football ball team, named Bolenciecwcz. At that time Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country, and Bolenciecwcz was one of its outstanding stars. In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter. Most of his professors were lenient and helped him along. None gave him more hints, in answering questions, or asked him simpler ones than the economics professor, a thin, timid man named Bassum. One day when we were on the subject of transportation and distribution, it came Bolenciecwcz’s turn to answer a question. “Name one means of transportation,” the professor said to him. No light came into the big tackle’s eyes. “Just any means of transportation,” said the professor. Bolenciecwcz sat staring at him. “That is,” pursued the professor, “any medium, agency, or method of going from one place to another.” Bolenciecwcz had the look of a man who is being led into a trap. “You may choose among steam, horse-drawn, or electrically propelled vehicles,” said the instructor. “I might suggest the one which we commonly take in making long journeys across land.” There was a profound silence in which everybody stirred uneasily, including Bolenciecwcz and Mr. Bassum. Mr. Bassum abruptly broke this silence in an amazing manner. “Choo-choo-choo,” he said, in a low voice, and turned instantly scarlet. He glanced appealingly around the room. All of us, of course, shared Mr. Bassum’s desire that Bolenciecwcz should stay abreast of the class in economics, for the Illinois game, one of the hardest and most important of the season, was only a week off. “Toot, toot, too-toooooootf” some student with a deep voice moaned, and we all looked encouragingly at Bolenciecwcz. Somebody else gave a fine imitation of a locomotive letting off steam. Mr. Bassum himself rounded off the little show. “Ding, dong, ding, dong,” he said, hopefully. Bolenciecwcz was staring at the floor now, trying to think, his great brow furrowed, his huge hands rubbing together, his face red.

“How did you come to college this year, Mr. Bolenciecwcz?” asked the professor. “Chuffa chuffa, chuffa chuffa.”

“M’father sent me,” said the football player.

“What on?” asked Bassum.

“I git an ‘lowance,” said the tackle, in a low, husky voice, obviously embarrassed.

“No, no,” said Bassum. “Name a means of transportation. What did you ride here on?”

“Train,” said Bolenciecwcz.

“Quite right,” said the professor. “Now, Mr. Nugent, will you tell us—”

If I went through anguish in botany and economics—for different reasons—gymnasium work was even worse. I don’t even like to think about it. They wouldn’t let you play games or join in the exercises with your glasses on and I couldn’t see with mine off. I bumped into professors, horizontal bars, agricultural students, and swinging iron rings. Not being able to see, I could take it but I couldn’t dish it out. Also, in order to pass gymnasium (and you had to pass it to graduate) you had to learn to swim if you didn’t know how. I didn’t like the swimming pool, I didn’t like swimming, and I didn’t like the swimming instructor, and after all these years I still don’t. I never swam but I passed my gym work anyway, by having another student give my gymnasium number (978) and swim across the pool in my place. He was a quiet, amiable blonde youth, number 473, and he would have seen through a microscope for me if we could have got away with it, but we couldn’t get away with it. Another thing I didn’t like about gymnasium work was that they made you strip the day you registered. It is impossible for me to be happy when I am stripped and being asked a lot of questions. Still, I did better than a lanky agricultural student who was cross examined just before I was. They asked each student what college he was in—that is, whether Arts, Engineering, Commerce, or Agriculture. “What college are you in?” the instructor snapped at the youth in front of me. “Ohio State University,” he said promptly.

It wasn’t that agricultural student but it was another a whole lot like him who decided to take up journalism, possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work. He didn’t realize, of course, that that would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter’s tools. Haskins didn’t seem cut out for journalism, being too embarrassed to talk to anybody and unable to use a typewriter, but the editor of the college paper assigned him to the cow barns, the sheep house, the horse pavilion, and the animal husbandry department generally. This was a genuinely big “beat,” for it took up five times as much ground and got ten times as great a legislative appropriation as the College of Liberal Arts. The agricultural student knew animals, but nevertheless his stories were dull and colorlessly written. He took all afternoon on each of them, because he had to hunt for each letter on the typewriter. Once in a while he had to ask somebody to help him hunt. “C” and “L,” in particular, were hard letters for him to find. His editor finally got pretty much annoyed at the farmer-journalist because his pieces were so uninteresting. “See here, Haskins,” he snapped at him one day, “why is it we never have anything hot from you on the horse pavilion? Here we have two hundred head of horses on this campus—more than any other university in the Western Conference except Purdue—and yet you never get any real low-down on them. Now shoot over to the horse barns and dig up something lively.” Haskins shambled out and came back in about an hour; he said he had something. “Well, start it off snappily,” said the editor. “Something people will read.” Haskins set to work and in a couple of hours brought a sheet of typewritten paper to the desk; it was a two-hundred word story about some disease that had broken out among the horses. Its opening sentence was simple but arresting. It read: “Who has noticed the sores on the tops of the horses in the animal husbandry building?”

Ohio State was a land grant university and therefore two years of military drill was compulsory. We drilled with old Springfield rifles and studied the tactics of the Civil War even though the World War was going on at the time. At II o’clock each morning thousands of freshmen and sophomores used to deploy over the campus, moodily creeping up on the old chemistry building. It was good training for the kind of warfare that was waged at Shiloh but it had no connection with what was going on in Europe. Some people used to think there was German money behind it, but they didn’t dare say so or they would have been thrown in jail as German spies. It was a period of muddy thought and marked, I believe, the decline of higher education in the Middle West.

As a soldier I was never any good at all. Most of the cadets were glumly indifferent soldiers, but I was no good at all. Once General Littlefield, who was commandant of the cadet corps, popped up in front of me during regimental drill and snapped, “You are the main trouble with this university!” I think he meant that my type was the main trouble with the university but he may have meant me individually. I was mediocre at drill, certainly that is, until my senior year. By that time I had drilled longer than anybody else in the Western Conference, having failed at military at the end of each preceding year so that I had to do it all over again. I was the only senior still in uniform. The uniform which, when new, had made me look like an interurban railway conductor, now that it had become faded and too tight, made me look like Bert Williams in his bell-boy act. This had a definitely bad effect on my morale. Even so, I had become by sheer practise little short of wonderful at squad manoeuvres.

One day General Littlefield picked our company out of the whole regiment and tried to get it mixed up by putting it through one movement after another as fast as we could execute them: squads right, squads left, squads on right into line, squads right about, squads left front into line, etc. In about three minutes one hundred and nine men were marching in one direction and I was marching away from them at an angle of forty-five degrees, all alone. “Company, halt!” shouted General Littlefield, “That man is the only man who has it right!” I was made a corporal for my achievement.

The next day General Littlefield summoned me to his office. He was swatting flies when I went in. I was silent and he was silent too, for a long time. I don’t think he remembered me or why he had sent for me, but he didn’t want to admit it. He swatted some more flies, keeping his eyes on them narrowly before he let go with the swatter. “Button up your coat!” he snapped. Looking back on it now I can see that he meant me although he was looking at a fly, but I just stood there. Another fly came to rest on a paper in front of the general and began rubbing its hind legs together. The general lifted the swatter cautiously. I moved restlessly and the fly flew away. “You startled him!” barked General Littlefield, looking at me severely. I said I was sorry. “That won’t help the situation!” snapped the General, with cold military logic. I didn’t see what I could do except offer to chase some more flies toward his desk, but I didn’t say anything. He stared out the window at the faraway figures of coeds crossing the campus toward the library. Finally, he told me I could go. So I went. He either didn’t know which cadet I was or else he forgot what he wanted to see me about. It may have been that he wished to apologize for having called me the main trouble with the university; or maybe he had decided to compliment me on my brilliant drilling of the day before and then at the last minute decided not to. I don’t know. I don’t think about it much any more.

~~~~~~~~~~

Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 2:11 PM  Comments (1)  
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Sober Trees

Days I don’t drink I am aimless
in a crowded Sears in a small Iowa.

The lights are ridiculously bright
& frankly, I can’t get used to that.

I am mesmerized with the escalators
& not just the oblivious ups & downs

but by the illusion of not getting any-
where & continuously. I drink strategic-

ally half the time to be unsure of my natural
state of consciousness. It’s a pillow over

the face this sober thing. In its parking lot,
the vulture tow trucks look for souls

who left their headlights burning & charge
exorbitantly for a jump. I admit sympathy

for teen-age girls dropped off by their nervous
dads with baby sitting moola crammed in their

tiny pocketbooks. When I drink the stars appear
very impersonal so I know my twin exists

elsewhere & one of us knows the truth & has
conned the other into some sad isolation that

acts like a very loyal yo-yo. If I think about it,
the leaves cover trees less than half the year

but I think of the natural, sober state
of a tree as having leaves, not being bare.

—Bruce Cohen

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Image by George Tooker
Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 1:09 PM  Comments (2)  
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Eyewitness: Suttee, C. 1650

Suttee, 1826

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

It is also an ancient custom among the idolaters of India that on a man dying his widow can never remarry; as soon, therefore, as he is dead she retires to weep for her husband, and some days afterwards her hair is shaved off, and she despoils herself of all the ornaments with which her person was adorned; she removes from her arms and legs the bracelets which her husband had given her, when espousing her, as a sign that she was to be submissive and bound to him, and she remains for the rest of her life without any consideration, and worse than a slave, in the place where previously she was mistress. This miserable condition causes her to detest life, and prefer to ascend a funeral pile to be consumed alive with the body of her deceased husband, rather than be regarded by all the world for the remainder of her days with opprobrium and infamy. Besides this the Brahmans induce women to hope that by dying in this way, with their husbands, they will live again with them in some other world with more glory and more comfort than they have previously enjoyed. These are the two reasons which make these unhappy women resolve to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; to which it should be added that the priests encourage them with the hope that at the moment they are in the fire, before they yield up their souls, Ram will reveal wonderful things to them, and that after the soul has passed through several bodies it will attain to an exalted degree of glory for all eternity.

But it should be remarked that a woman cannot burn herself with the body of her husband without having received permission from the governor of the place where she dwells, and those governors who are Musalmans, hold this dreadful custom of self-destruction in horror, and do not readily give permission. On the other hand, it is only childless widows who can be reproached for not having loved their husbands if they have not had courage to burn themselves after their death, and to whom this want of courage will be for the remainder of their lives a cause of reproach. For widows who have children are not permitted under any circumstances to bum themselves with the bodies of their husbands; and so far from custom obliging them, it is ordained that they shall live to watch over the education of their children. Those to whom the governors peremptorily refuse to grant permission to burn themselves pass the remainder of their lives in severe penances and in doing charitable deeds. There are some who frequent the great highways either to boil water with vegetables, and give it as a drink to passers-by, or to keep fire always ready to light the pipes of those who desire to smoke tobacco. There are others among them who make a vow to eat nothing but what they find undigested in the droppings of oxen, cows, and buffaloes, and do still more absurd things.

The governor, seeing that all remonstrances with women, who are urged to burn themselves even by their relatives and by the Brahmans, fail to turn them from the damnable resolution which they have taken to die in so cruel a fashion, when his secretary indicates by a sign that he has received a bribe, at length allows them to do what they wish, and in a rage tells all the idolaters who accompany them that they may ‘go to the devil’.

Immediately on permission being obtained, all kinds of music are heard, and with the sound of drums, flutes, and other instruments, all go to the house of the deceased, and thence, as I have said, accompany the body to the margin of a river or tank, where it is to be burned.

All the relatives and friends of the widow who desires to die after her husband congratulate her beforehand on the good fortune which she is about to acquire in the other world, and on the glory which all the members of the caste derive from her noble resolution. She dresses herself as for her wedding day, and is conducted in triumph to the place where she is to be burned. A great noise is made with instruments of music and the voices of the women who follow, singing hymns to the glory of the unhappy one who is about to die. The Brahmans accompanying her exhort her to show resolution and courage, and many Europeans believe that in order to remove the fear of that death which man naturally abhors, she is given some kind of drink that takes away her senses and removes all apprehension which the preparations for her death might occasion. It is for the interest of the Brahmans that these unhappy women maintain the resolution they have taken to burn themselves, for all the bracelets which they wear, both on arms and legs, with their ear-rings and rings, belong of right to the Brahmans, who search for them in the ashes after the women are burned. According to the station and wealth of the women, the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings are either of gold or silver; the poorest wear them of copper and tin; but as for precious stones, they do not wear them at all when going to be burned.

I have seen women burned in three different ways, according to the customs of different countries. In the Kingdom of Gujarat, and as far as Agra and Delhi, this is how it takes place: On the margin of a river or tank, a kind of small hut, about twelve feet square, is built of reeds and all kinds of faggots, with which some pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to make it burn quickly. The woman is seated in a half-reclining position in the middle of the hut, her head reposes on a kind of pillow of wood, and she rests her back against a post, to which she is tied by her waist by one of the Brahmans, for fear lest she should escape on feeling the flame. In this position she holds the dead body of her husband on her knees, chewing betel all the time; and after having been about half an hour in this condition, the Brahman who has been by her side in the hut goes outside, and she calls out to the priests to apply the fire; this the Brahmans, and the relatives and friends of the woman who are present immediately do, throwing into the fire some pots of oil, so that the woman may suffer less by being quickly consumed. After the bodies have been reduced to ashes, the Brahmans take whatever is found in the way of melted gold, silver, tin, or copper, derived from the bracelets, ear-rings, and rings which the woman had on; this belongs to them by right, as I have said.

In the Kingdom of Bengal women are burned in another manner. A woman in that country must be very poor if she does not come with the body of her husband to the bank of the Ganges to wash it after he is dead, and to bathe herself before being burned. I have seen them come to the Ganges more than twenty days’ journey, the bodies being by that time altogether putrid, and emitting an unbearable odour. There was one of them who came from the north, near the frontiers of the Kingdom of Bhutan, with the body of her husband which she had conveyed in a carriage, and travelled all the way on foot herself, without eating for fifteen or sixteen days, till she arrived at the Ganges, where after washing the body of her husband, which stank horribly, and bathing herself also, she had herself burned with him with a determination which surprised those who saw it. I was there at the time. As throughout the course of the Ganges, and also in all Bengal, there is but little fuel, these poor women send to beg for wood out of charity to burn themselves with the dead bodies of their husbands. A funeral pile is prepared for them, which is like a bed, with its pillow of small wood and reeds, in which pots of oil and other drugs are placed in order to consume the body quickly. The woman who intends to burn herself, preceded by drums, flutes, and hautboys, and adorned with her most beautiful jewels, comes dancing to the funeral pile, and ascending it she places herself, half-lying, half-seated. Then the body of her husband is laid across her, and all the relatives and friends bring her, one a letter, another a piece of cloth, this one flowers, that one pieces of silver or copper, asking her to give this from me to my mother, or to my brother, or to some relative or friend, whoever the dead person may be whom they have most loved while alive. When the woman sees that they bring her nothing more, she asks those present three times whether they have any more commissions for her, and if they do not reply she wraps all they have brought in a taffeta, which she places between her lap and the back of the body of her dead husband, calling upon the priests to apply fire to the funeral pile. This the Brahmans and the relatives do simultaneously. There is, as I have remarked, but little wood in the Kingdom of Bengal; so as soon as these miserable women are dead and half burned, their bodies are thrown into the Ganges with those of their husbands, where they are eaten by the crocodiles.

I should not forget here an evil custom which is practised among the idolaters of the same Kingdom of Bengal. When a woman is delivered, and the infant, as often happens, is unwilling to take its mother’s breast it is carried outside the village and placed in a cloth, which is tied by the four corners to the branches of a tree, and is thus left from morning to evening. In this way the poor infant is exposed to the crows, which torment it, and some have been found whose eyes have been torn out of their heads, which is the reason why many idolaters are seen in Bengal who have but one eye, and others who have both injured or altogether gone. In the evening the infant is taken to try whether it is willing to suckle during the following night, and should it happen that it still refuses the breast, it is taken back on the following day to the same place; this is done for three days in succession, after which, if the infant is unwilling to take the breast, in the belief that it is a demon, they cast it into the Ganges, or some other river or tank which is nearer at hand. In places where there are many monkeys these poor children are not so exposed to the attacks of crows, for this reason, that as soon as a monkey discovers a nest of these birds he climbs the tree, and throws the nest on one side and the eggs on the other. On the other hand, there are among the English, Dutch, and Portuguese charitable persons who, moved to compassion for the misfortune of these infants, remove them when they are thus exposed and hung in a tree and take care to have them brought up as I have once seen an example of at Hugly; this is done in the places near their factories.

Let us see now what is the practice along the coast of Coromandel when women are going to be burned with the bodies of their deceased husbands. A large hole of nine or ten feet deep, and twenty-five or thirty feet square, is dug, into which plenty of wood is thrown, with many drugs to make it burn quickly. When the hole is well heated, the body of the husband is placed on the edge, and then his wife comes dancing, and chewing betel, accompanied by all her relatives and friends, and with the sound of drums and cymbals. The woman then makes three turns round the hole, and at each time she embraces all her relatives and friends. When she completes the third turn the Brahmans throw the body of the deceased into the fire, and the woman, with her back turned towards the hole, is pushed by the Brahmans, and falls in backwards. Then all the relatives throw pots of oil and other drugs of that kind, as I have said is elsewhere done, so that the bodies may be the the sooner consumed. In the greater part of the same Coromandel coast the woman does not burn herself with the body of her deceased husband, but allows herself to be interred, while alive, with him in a hole which the Brahmans dig in the ground, about one foot deeper than the height of the man or woman. They generally select a sandy spot, and when they have placed the man and woman in the hole, each of their friends fills a basket of sand, and throws it on the bodies until the hole is full and heaped over, half a foot higher than the ground, after which they jump and dance upon it till they are certain that the woman is smothered.

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[Note: Suttee, properly known as sati, was officially banned by the British in 1829 but has never been completely stamped out. About 40 cases have been reported since Indian independence in 1947, mostly in the northwest state of Rajasthan, home of the traditional Rajput warrior caste. One instance in 1987 became a cause celebre, with some Indian women, believe it or not, demanding the right to immolate themselves. Gives new meaning to that old Hindu chant, I’m a Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Love.]

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 12:56 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Sweat

Friday night I entered a dark corridor
rode to the upper floors with men who filled
the stainless elevator with their smell.

Did you ever make a crystal garden, pour salt
into water, keep pouring until nothing more
dissolved?
A landscape will bloom in that saturation.

My daddy’s body shop floats to the surface
like a submarine. Men with nibblers and tin snips
buffing skins, sanding curves under clamp lights.

I grew up curled in the window of a 300 SL
Gullwing, while men glided on their backs
through oily rainbows below me.

They torqued lugnuts, flipped fag ends
into gravel. Our torch song
had one refrain — oh the pain of loving you.

Friday nights they’d line the shop sink, naked
to the waist, scour down with Ajax, spray water
across their necks and up into their armpits.

Babies have been conceived on sweat alone —
the buttery scent of a woman’s breast,
the cumin of a man. From the briny odor

of black lunch boxes — cold cuts, pickles,
waxed paper — my girl flesh grows.
From the raunchy fume of strangers.

—Sandra Alcosser

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FROM THE ACADEMY OF AMERICAN POETS: Sandra Alcosser was born in Washington, DC, in 1944, and she grew up in South Bend, Indiana. She received her B.A. from Purdue University in 1972 and an M.F.A. from the University of Montana in 1982, where she studied with Richard Hugo. She is the author of Except By Nature (Graywolf Press, 1998), which received the Academy’s 1998 James Laughlin Award and was selected by Eamon Grennan for the 1997 National Poetry Series; Sleeping Inside the Glacier, a collaboration with artist Michele Burgess (1997); and A Fish to Feed All Hunger (1993), which was selected by James Tate to be the Associated Writing Programs Award Series winner in poetry. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Yale Review.

Alcosser’s honors include a Montana Artist Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, a Pushcart Prize, a San Diego Artist Fellowship, and a Writer’s Voice New Voices of the West Award. Formerly the director of Central Park’s Poets-in-the-Park program in New York City, Alcosser started the MFA Program in Creative Writing at San Diego State University. She is currently a professor of poetry, fiction, and feminist poetics at San Diego State University, and has taught at the University of Michigan, the University of Montana, and Louisiana State University. Alcosser divides her time between San Diego and Florence, Montana.

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Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 11:25 PM  Leave a Comment  
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I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.

I remember, I remember
The roses red and white,
The violets and the lily cups–
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday,—
The tree is living yet!

I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then
That is so heavy now,
The summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow.

I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.

—Thomas Hood

Read by Tim Pigott-Smith

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Image by Johann Georg Meyer
Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 1:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Pilgrims Land, November 1620

The Pilgrims Land

Landing in New England, November 1620

William Bradford

New England had been named by Captain John Smith, who explored its shores in 1614. The first permanent settlement was made at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 by the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ aboard the Mayflower, whose arrival is described here.

About ten a clocke we came into a deepe Valley, full of brush, wood-gaile, and long grasse, through which wee found little paths or tracts, and there we saw a Deere, and found Springs of fresh Water, of which we were hartily glad, and sat us downe and drunke our first New England Water, with as much delight as ever we drunke drinke in all our lives.

When we had refreshed ourselves, we directed our course full South, that wee might come to the shoare, which within a short while after we did, and there made a fire, that they in the Ship might see where we were (as wee had direction) and so marched on towards this supposed River: and as we went in another Valley, we found a fine cleere Pond of fresh water, being about a Musket shot broad, and twice as long: there grew also many small Vines, and Fowle and Deere haunted there; there grew much Sasafras: from thence we went on and found much plain ground about fiftie Acres, fit for the Plow, and some signes where the Indians had formerly planted their Corne: after this, some thought it best for nearnesse of the River to goe downe and travaile on the Sea sands, by which meanes some of our men were tired, and lagged behinde, so we stayed and gathered them up, and strucke into the Land againe; where we found a little path to certaine heapes of Sand, one whereof was covered with old Mats, and had a wooden thing like a Morter whelmed on the top of it, and an earthen pot laid in a little hole at the end thereof; we musing what it might be, digged and found a Bowe, and as we thought, Arrowes, but they were rotten; We supposed there were many other things, but because we deemed them graves, we put in the Bow againe and made it up as it was, and left the rest untouched, because we thought it would be odious unto them to ransacke their Sepulchers. We went on further and found new stubble of which they had gotten Corne this yeare, and many Walnut trees full of Nuts, and great store of Strawberries, and some Vines; passing thus a field or two, which were not great, we came to another, which had also bin new gotten, and there wee found where an house had beene, and foure or five old Plankes laied together; also we found a great Kettle, which had beene some Ships kettle and brought out of Europe; there was also an heape of sand, made like the former, but it was newly done, wee might see how they had padled it with their hands, which we digged up, and in it we found a little old Basket full of faire Indian Corne, and digged further, and found a fine great new Basket full of very faire Corne of this yeare, with some sixe and thirty goodly eares of Corne, some yellow, and some red, and others mixt with blew, which was a very goodly sight: the Basket was round, and narrow at the top, it held about three or foure bushels, which was as much as two of us could lift up from the ground, and was very handsomely and cunningly made: But whilst we were busie about these things, we set our men Sentinell in a round ring, all but two or three which digged up the Corne. Wee were in suspense, what to doe with it, and the Kettle, and at length after much consultation, we concluded to take the Kettle, and as much of the Corne as wee could carry away with us: and when our Shallop came if we could finde any of the people, and came to parley with them, wee would give them the Kettle againe, and satisfie them for their Corne. . .

When wee had marched five or six miles into the Woods, and could find no signes of any people, wee returned againe another way, and as we came into the plaine ground, wee found a place like a grave, but it was much bigger and longer than any wee had yet seene. It was also covered with boords, so as wee mused what it should be, and resolved to dig it up; where we found, first a Mat, and under that a faire Bow, and there another Mat, and under that a Boord about three quarters long, finely carved and painted, with three Tynes, or broches on the top, like a Crown; also betweene the Mats we found Bowles, Trayes, Dishes, and such like Trinkets; at length wee came to a faire new Mat, and under that two Bundles, the one bigger, the other lesse, we opened the greater and found in it a great quantitie of fine and perfect Red Powder, and in it the bones and skull of a man. The skull had fine yellow haire still on it, and some of the flesh unconsumed; there was bound up with a Knife, a Packneedle, and two or three old Iron things. It was bound up in a Saylers Canvas Casacke, and a payre of Cloth Breeches; the Red Powder was a kind of Embaulment, and yeelded a strong, but not offensive smell; It was as fine as any Flower. We opened the lesse bundle like wise, and found of the same Powder in it, and the bones and head of a little childe, about the legges, and other parts of it was Bound strings, and Bracelets of fine white Beads; there was also by it a little Bow, about three quarters long, and some other odde knackes: we brought sundry of the pretiest things away with us, and covered the Corps up againe . . .

We went ranging up and downe till the Sunne began to draw low, and then we hasted out of the Woods, that we might come to our Shallop. By that time we had done, and our Shallop come to us it was within night, and we fed upon such victualls as we had, and betooke us to our rest after we had set out our watch. About midnight we heard a great and hideous cry, and our Sentinell called, ‘Arme, Arme.’ So we bestirred our selves and shot off a couple of Muskets and noise ceased: we concluded, that it was a company of Wolves & Foxes, for one told us he had heard such a noise in Newfound-land. About five a clocke in the morning we began to be stirring. . . upon a sudden wee heard a great & strange cry which we knew to be the same voices, though they varied their notes; one of the company being abroad came running in, and cried, ‘They are men, Indians, Indians’; and with all, their Arrowes came flying amongst us, our men ran out with all speed to recover their Armes . . . The cry of our enemies was dreadfull, especially, when our men ran out to recover their Armes, their note was after this manner, ‘Woath woach ha ha hach woach’: our men were no sooner come to their Armes, but the enemy was readie to assault them.

There was a lustie man, and no whit lesse valiant, who was thought to be their Captain, stood behind a Tree within halfe a Musket shot of us, and there let his Arrowes flie at us; hee stood three shots off a Musket, at length one tooke as he said full ayme at him, after which he gave an extraordinarie cry and away they went all, wee followed them about a quarter of a mile, but wee left sixe to keepe our Shallop, for wee were carefull of our businesse . . . We tooke up eighteene of their Arrowes, which wee had sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brasse, others with Harts horne, and others with Eagles dawes; many more no doubt were shot, for these wee found were almost covered with leaves: yet by the speciall providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us . . . On Munday we found a very good Harbour for our shipping, we marched also into the Land, and found divers corne Fields and little running Brookes, a place verie good for scituation, so we returned to our Ship againe with good newes to the rest of our people, which did much comfort their hearts.

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Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 12:26 PM  Leave a Comment  
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From Here To Eternity

FROM From Here To Eternity by James Jones

Robert E. Lee Prewitt had learned to play a guitar long before he ever learned to bugle or to box. He learned it as a boy, and with it he learned a lot of blues songs and laments. In the Kentucky Mountains along the West Virginia Line life led him swiftly to that type of music. And this was long before he ever seriously considered becoming a member of The Profession. In the Kentucky Mountains along the West Virginia Line guitar playing is not considered the accomplishment it is most places. Every wellbred boy learns to chord a guitar when he is still small enough to hold it like a string bass. The boy Prewitt loved the songs because they gave him something, an understanding, a first hint that pain might not be pointless if you could only turn it into something. The songs stayed with him, but the guitar playing did not give him anything. It left him cold. He had no call for it at all.

He had no call for boxing either. But he was very fast and had an incredible punch, developed by necessity on the bum, before he entered The Profession. People always find those things out. They tend to become manifest. Especially in The Profession where sports are the nourishment of life and boxing is the most manly sport. Beer, in The Profession, is the wine of life. To tell the truth, he had no call for The Profession. At least not then. As a dissatisfied son of a Harlan County miner he just naturally gravitated toward it, the only profession open to him. He really had no call for anything until the first time he handled a bugle.

It started as a joke on a battalion beer convention and he only held it and blew a couple of bleats, but he knew at once that this was something different. It was somehow something sacred, the way you sit out at night and watch the stars and your eye consciously spans that distance and you wonder if you’re sitting on an electron that revolves around a proton in a series of infinite universes, and you suddenly see how strange a tree would look to one who had never lived upon the earth.

He had wild visions, for a moment, of having once played a herald’s trumpet for the coronations and of having called the legions to bed down around the smoking campfires in the long blue evenings of old Palestine. It was then he remembered that hint about pointlessness that the blues songs and laments had given him; he knew then that if he could play a bugle the way he thought a bugle he would have found his justification. He even realized, all at once, holding the bugle, the reason why he had ever got into The Profession at all, a problem that had stumped him up till then. That was actually how much it meant to him. He recognized he had a call.

He had heard a lot about The Profession as a boy. He would sit on the railless porch with the men when the long tired, dirty-faced evening rolled down the narrow valley, thankfully blotting out the streets of shacks, and listen to them talk. His Uncle John Turner, tall, raw-boned and spare, had run away as a boy and joined The Profession, to find Adventure. He had been a corporal in the Philippine Insurrection.

The boy Prewitt’s father and the others had never been beyond the hills, and in the boy’s mind, already even then bludgeoning instinctively against the propaganda of the walls of slag as the foetus kicks frantically against the propaganda of the womb, this fact of The Profession gave to Uncle John Turner a distinction no one else could claim.

The tall man would squat on his hams in the little yard – the coal dirt was too thick on all the ground to sit – and in an abortive effort to dispel the taste of what the Encyclopaedias call ‘Black Gold’ he would tell them stories that proved conclusively there was a world beyond the slag heaps and these trees whose leaves were always coated black.

National Book Award Winner

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Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Comments (1)  
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Facing It

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

—Yusef Komunyakaa

Read by the Poet Yusef Komunyakaa

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Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 2:33 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Gauche Gaucho

Autumn in Patagonia

FROM In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

BAHIA BLANCA is the last big place before the Patagonian desert. Bill dropped me at the hotel near the bus station. The bar-room was green and brightly lit and full of men playing cards. A country boy stood by the bar. He was shaky on his feet but he kept his head up like a gaucho. He was a nice-looking boy with curly bkack hair and he really was very drunk. The owner’s wife showed me a hot airless room, painted purple, with two beds in it. The room had no window and the door gave out on to a glassed-in courtyard. It was very cheap and the woman said nothing about having to share.

I was half asleep when the country boy reeled in, flung himself on the other bed and groaned and sat up and was sick. He was sick on and off for an hour and then he snored. I did not sleep that night for the smell of the sick and the snoring.

So next day, as we drove through the desert, I sleepily watched the rags of silver cloud spinning across the sky, and the sea of grey-green thornscrub lying off in sweeps and rising in terraces and the white dust streaming off the saltpans, and, on the horizon, land and sky dissolving into an absence of colour.

Patagonia begins on the Rio Negro. At mid-day the bus crossed an iron bridge over the river and stopped outside a bar. An Indian woman got off with her son. She had filled up two seats with her bulk. She chewed garlic and wore real gold jangly earrings and a hard white hat pinned over her braids. A look of abstract horror passed over the boy’s face as she manoeuvred herself and her parcels on to the street.

The permanent houses of the village were of brick with black stove pipes and a tangle of electric wires above. Where the brick houses gave out, the shacks of the Indians began. These were patched out of packing cases, sheet plastic and sacking.

A single man was walking up the street, his brown felt hat pulled low over his face. He was carrying a sack and walking into the white dustclouds, out into the country. Some children sheltered in a doorway and tormented a lamb. From one hut came the noise of the radio and sizzling fat. A lumpy arm appeared and threw a dog a bone. The dog took it and slunk off.

The Indians were migrant workers from Southern Chile. They were Araucanian Indians. A hundred years ago the Araucanians were incredibly fierce and brave. They painted their bodies red and flayed their enemies alive and sucked at the hearts of the dead. Their boys’ education consisted of hockey, horsemanship, liquor, insolence and sexual athletics, and for three centuries they scared the Spaniards out of their wits. In the sixteenth century Alonso de Ercilla wrote an epic in their honour and called it the Araucana, Voltaire read it and through him the Araucanians became candidates for the Noble Savage (tough version). The Araucanians are still very tough and would be a lot tougher if they gave up drink.

Outside the village there were irrigated plantations of maize and squash, and orchards of cherries and apricots. Along the line of the river, the willows were all blown about and showing their silvery undersides. The Indians had been cutting withies and there were fresh white cuts and the smell of sap. The river was swollen with snowmelt from the Andes, fast-running and rustling the reeds. Purple swallows were chasing bugs. When they flew above the cliff, the wind caught them and keeled them over in a fluttering reversal and they dropped again low over the river.

The cliff rose sheer above a ferry-landing. I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.

The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a-bitter smell when crushed. Unlike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience. Charles Darwin found its negative qualities irresistible. In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.

In the 1860s W. H. Hudson came to the Rio Negro looking for the migrant birds that wintered around his home in La Plata. Years later he remembered the trip through the filter of his Notting Hill boarding-house and wrote a book so quiet and sane it makes Thoreau seem a ranter. Hudson devotes a whole chapter of Idle Days in Patagonia to answering Mr Darwin’s question, and he concludes that desert wanderers discover in themselves a primaeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

About the time of Hudson’s visit, the Rio Negro was the northern frontier of an unusual kingdom which still maintains a court in exile in Paris.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 9:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Idea of Ancestry

1

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews.  They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk.  I know
their dark eyes, they know mine.  I know their style,
they know mine.  I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins.  I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).

I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say).  He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space.  My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him.  There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”    

2

Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes.  Last yr/like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birth stream/I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a
monkey on my back.  And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard/I smelled the old
land and the woods/I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men/
I flirted with the women/I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down.  That night I looked at my grandmother
and split/my guts were screaming for junk/but I was almost
contented/I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)

This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space.  I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.    

—Etheridge Knight

Read by the Poet Etheridge Knight

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Here’s a short biographical sketch from The Academy of American Poets:

Etheridge Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi, in 1931. Although he dropped out of school at age fourteen, his education in the uses and joys of language continued as he explored the world of juke joints, pool halls, and underground poker games. He began to master the art of the toast, a form of long, improvised, humorous poetry that dates back to the 19th century and has its roots in African storytelling. From 1947 to 1951, Knight served in the U.S. Army in Korea, and returning with a shrapnel wound that caused him to fall deeper into a drug addiction that had begun in his youth. In 1960 he was arrested for robbery and sentenced to eight years in the Indiana State Prison. During this time he began writing poetry, and he corresponded with and received visits from such established African American literary figures as Dudley Randall and Gwendolyn Brooks. Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press published Poems from Prison (1968), Etheridge Knight’s first book, one year before he was released from prison.

The book was a success, and Knight soon joined such poets as Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez (to whom he was once married) in what came to be called the Black Arts Movement. This movement, according to the poet and critic Larry Neal, was “radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.” Knight embraced these ideals in his own work and in 1970 edited a collection entitled Black Voices From Prison. Knight’s books and oral performances drew both popular and critical acclaim, and he received honors from such institutions as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. In 1990 he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. Etheridge Knight died in 1991.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 11:48 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Crystal World

FROM The Crystal World by J G Ballard

The steamer was now barely twenty feet from the jetty, and through the porthole Dr. Sanders could see the khaki-clad legs of the reception party. From his pocket he took out a well-thumbed envelope and drew from it a letter written in pale-blue ink that had almost penetrated the soft tissue. Both envelope and letter were franked with a censor’s stamp, and panels which Sanders assumed contained the address had been Cut out.

As the steamer bumped against the jetty, Dr. Sanders read through the letter for the last time on board.

Thursday, January 5th

My dear Edward,

At last we are here. The forest is the most beautiful in Africa, a house of jewels. I can barely find words to describe our wonder each morning as we look out across the slopes, still half-hidden by the mist but glistening like St. Sophia, each bough a jeweled semi-dome. Indeed, Max says I am becoming excessively Byzantine – I wear my hair to my waist even at the clinic, and affect a melancholy expression, although in fact for the first time in many years my heart sings! Both of us wish you were here. The clinic is small, with about twenty patients. Fortunately the people of these forest slopes move through life with a kind of dreamlike patience, and regard our work for them as more social than therapeutic. They walk through the dark forest with crowns of light on their heads.

Max sends his best wishes to you, as I do. We remember you often. The light touches everything with diamonds and sapphires.

My love, Suzanne

As the metal heels of the boarding party rang out across the deck over his head, Dr. Sanders read again the last line of the letter. But for the unofficial but firm assurances he had been given by the prefecture in Libreville, he would not have believed that Suzanne Clair and her husband had come to Port Matarre, so unlike the somber light of the river and jungle were her descriptions of the forest near the clinic. Their exact whereabouts no one had been able to tell him, or for that matter why a sudden censorship should have been imposed on mail leaving the province. When Sanders became too persistent, he was reminded that the correspondence of people under a criminal charge was liable to censorship, but as far as Suzanne and Max Clair were concerned, the suggestion was grotesque.

Thinking of the small, intelligent microbiologist and his wife, tall and dark-haired, with her high forehead and calm eyes, Dr. Sanders remembered their sudden departure from Fort Isabelle three months earlier. Sanders’s affair with Suzanne had lasted for two years, kept going only by his inability to resolve it in any way. His failure to commit himself fully to her made it plain that she had become the focus of all his uncertainties at Fort Isabelle. For some time he had suspected that his reasons for serving at the leper hospital were not altogether humanitarian, and that he might be more attracted by the idea of leprosy, and whatever it unconsciously represented, than he imagined. Suzanne’s somber beauty had become identified in his mind with this dark side of the psyche, and their affair was an attempt to come to terms with himself and his own ambiguous motives.

On second thought, Sanders recognized that a far more sinister explanation for their departure from the hospital was at hand. When Suzanne’s letter arrived with its strange and ecstatic vision of the forest–in maculoanesthetic leprosy there was an involvement of nervous tissue–he had decided to follow them. Forgoing his inquiries about the censored letter, in order not to warn Suzanne of his arrival, he took a month’s leave from the hospital and set off for Port Matarre.

From Suzanne’s description of the forest slopes he guessed the clinic to be somewhere near Mont Royal, possibly attached to one of the French-owned mining settlements, with their overzealous security men. However, the activity on the jetty outside–there were half a dozen soldiers moving about near a parked staff car–indicated that something more was afoot.

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Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 11:27 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Blossom

A May morning.
Light starting in the sky.

I have come here
after a long night,
its senses of loss,
its unrelenting memories of happiness.

The blossom on the apple tree is still in shadow,
its petals half-white and filled with water at the core
in which the freshness and secrecy of dawn are stored
even in the dark.

How much longer will I see girlhood in my daughter?

In other seasons
I knew every leaf on this tree.
Now I stand here
almost without seeing them

and so lost in grief
I hardly notice what is happening
as the light increases and the blossom speaks
and turns to me with blonde hair and my eyebrows
and says —

imagine if I stayed here,
even for the sake of your love
what would happen to the summer?
To the fruit?

Then holds out a dawn-soaked hand to me
whose fingers I counted at birth
years ago

and touches mine for the last time.

And falls to earth.

—Eavan Boland

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 4:13 PM  Leave a Comment  
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At a Hollywood premiere the important limousines kept drawing up in front of the marquee. Then came a dilapidated Ford and out of it, faultlessly dressed, stepped Wilson Mizner. He threw his keys at the parking attendant, who in turn looked with contempt at Mizner’s rattletrap. “What shall I do with it?” he asked. “Keep it,” said Mizner and strode into the theater.

Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 3:48 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Hypocrites’ Junction

FROM Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

“Shout About it from the Housetops”

. . . .

A lot of people have asked me if she really looks as tough as her picture on the back of her book. If she didn’t want everybody to think she was a beer truck driver, I don’t know why she chose that picture for the book, because she could certainly look nicer than that. In real life she doesn’t look anything like Jimmy Hoffa.

She’s got a low center of gravity, that’s true. And she is maybe a little heavy, but I know plenty of men who would like that. The main thing is her face. It’s a pretty, sweet, loving face. In real life she doesn’t look as though she’s wondering where she’d put down her cigar.

The second time she got going, the pump screamed so loud it brought her husband to the kitchen door. He had a quart of beer with him.

“It’s full!” he yelled at her.

“What?” she said, still pumping.

“The bucket’s full!” he said.

“I don’t care!” she said.

So he took hold of the handle to make her stop. “She isn’t well,” he said to me.

“Just rich and famous is all,” she said, “and sick as a dog.”

“You better get out of here,” he said to me, “or you’ll wind up in bed in the middle of her next book—with God knows who.”

“There isn’t going to be any next book!” she said. “There isn’t going to be any next anything! I’m getting out of here for good!” And she got into the old Chevrolet, got in and punched down the starter. Nothing happened. The battery was dead.

And then she went dead, too. She closed her eyes, rested her head on the steering wheel, and she looked like she wanted to stay there forever.

When she stayed like that for more than a minute, her husband got worried. He went over to the car barefooted, and I could see that he really loved her. “Honey?” he said. “Honeybunch?”

She kept her head where it was. Her mouth was all that moved. “Call up that Rolls-Royce salesman that was here,” she said. “I want a Rolls-Royce. I want it right away.”

“Honey?” he said again.

She raised her hand. “I want it!” she said. She certainly looked tough now. “And I want a mink! I want two minks! I want a hundred dresses from Bergdorf Goodman! A trip around the world! A diamond tiara from Cartier!” She got out of the car, feeling pretty good now. “What is it you sell?” she asked me.

“Storm windows,” I said.

“I want those, too!” she said. “Storm windows all around!”

“Ma’am?” I said.

“That’s all you sell?” she said. “Isn’t there something else you could sell me? I have a check for a hundred and sixty thousand dollars in the kitchen, and you haven’t even made a dent in it.”

“Well,” I said, “I also handle storm doors and tub enclosures and jalousies.”

“Good!” she said. “I’ll take ’em!” She stopped by her husband, looked him up and down. “Maybe you’re through living,” she said to him, “but I’m just starting. Maybe I can’t have your love anymore, if I ever had it—but at least I can have everything money can buy, and that’s plenty!”

She went into the house, and she slammed the kitchen door so hard she broke the window in it.

Her husband went over to the bucket that was already so full, and he poured his quart of beer into it. “Alcohol is no help,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” I said.

“What would you do if you were in the middle of this situation?” he asked me. “What would you do?”

“I suppose I’d commit suicide after a while,” I said, “because nothing anybody’s said or done has made any sense at all. The human system can stand only so much of that.”

“You mean we’re being immature?” he said. “You mean you don’t think our problems are real? Just think a minute about the strain that’s been placed on this marriage!”

“How can I,” I said, “when I don’t even know who you are?”

He couldn’t believe it. “You don’t?” he said. “You don’t know my name?” He pointed after his wife. “Or her name?”

“No,” I said, “but I certainly wish I did, because she just gave me the biggest order for windows I’ve had since I did the Green Mountain Inn. Or was she kidding?”

He looked at me now as though I were something rare and beautiful, as though he were afraid I would disappear. “I’m just one more plain, ordinary human being to you?” he said.

“Yes,” I said. That wasn’t strictly true, after the show he and his wife put on.

“Come in—come in,” he said. “What would you like? Beer? Coffee?”

Nothing was too good for me. He hustled me into the kitchen. Nothing would do but I pass the time of day with him. I never knew a man to be so hungry for talk. In about half an hour there we covered every subject but love and literature.

And then his wife came in, all charged up for a new scene, the biggest scene yet.

“I’ve ordered the Rolls-Royce,” she said, “and a new battery for the Chevrolet. When they come, I’m leaving for New York City in the Chevrolet. You can have the Rolls as partial compensation for all the heartaches I’ve caused you.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Elsie,” he said.

“I’m through crying out loud,” she said. “I’m through crying any which way. I’m going to start living.”

“More power to you,” he said.

“I’m glad to see you’ve got a friend,” she said, looking at me. “I’m sorry to say I don’t have any friends at the moment, but I expect to find some in New York City, where people aren’t afraid to live a little and face life the way it really is.”

“You know who my friend is?” he said.

“He’s a man who hopes to sell storm windows,” she said. And then she said to me, “Well, you sold ’em, Junior. You sold an acre of ’em, and my deepest hope is that they will keep my first husband from catching cold. Before I can leave this house in good conscience, I want to make sure it’s absolutely safe and snug for a man who lives in his pajamas.”

“Elsie—listen to me,” he said. “This man is one of the few living creatures who knows nothing about you, me, or the book. He is one of the few people who can still look upon us as ordinary human beings rather than objects of hate, ridicule, envy, obscene speculation—”

Elsie Strang Morgan thought that over. The more she thought about it, the harder it hit her. She changed from a wild woman to a gentle, quiet housewife, with eyes as innocent as any cow’s.

“How do you do?” she said.

“Fine, thank you, ma’am,” I said.

“You must think we’re kind of crazy here,” she said.

“Oh, no ma’am,” I said. The lie made me fidget some, and I picked up the sugar bowl in the middle of the table, and there underneath it was a check for one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. I am not fooling. That is where they had the check she’d gotten for the movie rights to her book, under a cracked five-and-ten-cent-store sugar bowl.

I knocked my coffee over, spilled it on the check.

And do you know how many people tried to save that check?

One.

Me.

I pulled it out of the coffee, dried it off, while Elsie Strang Morgan and her husband sat back, didn’t care what happened to it. That check, that ticket to a life of ease and luxury, might as well have been a chance on a turkey raffle, for all they cared.

“Here—” I said, and I handed it to the husband. “Better put this in a safe place.”

He folded his hands, wouldn’t take it. “Here,” he said.

I handed it to her. She wouldn’t take it, either. “Give it to your favorite charity,” she said. “It won’t buy anything I want.”

“What do you want, Elsie?” her husband asked her.

“I want things the way they were,” she said, clouding up, “the way they never can be again. I want to be a dumb, shy, sweet little housewife again. I want to be the wife of a struggling high school teacher again. I want to love my neighbors again, and I want my neighbors to love me again—and I want to be tickled silly by dumb things like sunshine and a drop in the price of hamburger and a three-dollar-a-week raise for my husband.” She pointed out the window. “It’s spring out there,” she said, “and I’m sure every woman in the world but me is glad.”

And then she told me about her book. And while she talked she went to a window and looked out at all that useless springtime.

“It’s about a very worldly, virile man from New York City,” she said, “who comes to a small town in Vermont to teach.”

“Me,” said her husband. “She changed my name from Lawrence Morgan to Lance Magnum, so nobody could possibly recognize me—and then she proceeded to describe me right down to the scar on the bridge of my nose.” He went to the icebox for another quart of beer. “She worked on this thing in secret, understand. I had no idea she’d ever written anything more complicated than a cake recipe until the six author’s copies of the book came from the publisher. I came home from work one day, and there they were, stacked on that kitchen table there—six copies of Hypocrites’ Junction by—good God in Heaven!—Elsie Strang Morgan!” He took a long pull from the beer bottle, banged the bottle down. “And there were candies all around the stack,” he said, “and on the top was one perfect red red rose.”

. . . .

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 3:44 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Talking Back

Talking Back (To W. H. Auden)

‘for poetry makes nothing happen. . .’

What it makes happen is small things,
sometimes, to some, in an area
already pretty well taken
care of by the senses. Thus, to
the eye, spruce needles fix the tufts
of new snow to the twigs so the
wind cannot dislodge them. They hold —
a metaphor. And in the ear,
the open, talking shapes, jet black,
in a snowbound brook, croon about
cold. And snow-foliage on the
high slopes dupes the eye, the whirring
spruces dupe the ear, and you think:
catkins, maybe, in February
or you think: whirring of doves’ wings.
And ice underfoot is mica —
correspondences a man will
find, to his slight alteration,
always, where he pays attention —
on a walk after powder snow,
in a poem. As you well know.

Looked at carefully, nothing is sullen
but an inattentive creature.
Disorderly things praise order.
The exact details of our plight
in your poems, order revealed
by the closest looking, are things
I’m changed by and had never seen,
might never have seen, but for them.

Poetry makes such things happen
sometimes, as certain people do
at the right juncture of our lives.
Don’t knock it, it has called across
the enchanted chasm of love
resemblances like rescue gear.
It is like finding on your tongue
right words to call across the floe
of arrogance to the wise dead,
of health to sickness, old to young.
Across this debt, we tell you so.

—William Meredith

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 12:13 PM  Leave a Comment  
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George Bernard Shaw at Mother’s Funeral

George Bernard Shaw

GBS at his Mother’s Funeral, 22 February 1914

George Bernard Shaw

Why does a funeral always sharpen one’s sense of humor and rouse one’s spirits? This one was a complete success. No burial horrors. No mourners in black, snivelling and wallowing in induced grief. Nobody knew except myself, Barker & the undertaker. Since I could not have a splendid procession with lovely colors and flashing life and triumphant music, it was best with us three. I particularly mention the undertaker because the humor of the occasion began with him. I went down in the tube to Golders Green with Barker, and walked to the crematorium; and there came also the undertaker presently with his hearse, which had walked (the horse did) conscientiously at a funeral pace through the cold; though my mother would have preferred an invigorating trot. The undertaker approached me in the character of a man shattered with grief; and I, hard as nails and in loyally high spirits (rejoicing irrepressibly in my mother’s memory), tried to convey to him that this professional chicanery, as I took it to be, was quite unnecessary. And lo! it wasn’t professional chicanery at all. He had done all sorts of work for her for years, and was actually and really in a state about losing her, not merely as a customer, but as a person he liked and was accustomed to. And the coffin was covered with violet cloth – no black.

I must rewrite the burial service; for there are things in it that are deader than anyone it has ever been read over; but I had it read not only because the parson must live by his fees, but because with all its drawbacks it is the most beautiful thing that can be read as yet. And the parson did not gabble and hurry in the horrible manner common on such occasions. With Barker & myself for his congregation (and Mamma) he did it with his utmost feeling and sincerity. We could have made him perfect technically in two rehearsals; but he was excellent as it was; and I shook his hand with unaffected gratitude in my best manner.

At the passage ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ there was a little alteration of the words to suit the process. A door opened in the wall; and the violet coffin mysteriously passed out through it and vanished as it closed. People think that door the door of the furnace; but it isnt. I went behind the scenes at the end of the service and saw the real thing. People are afraid to see it; but it is wonderful. I found there the violet coffin opposite another door, a real unmistakable furnace door. When it lifted there was a plain little chamber of cement and firebrick. No heat. No noise. No roaring draught. No flame. No fuel. It looked cool, clean, sunny, though no sun could get there. You would have walked in or put your hand in without misgiving. Then the violet coffin moved again and went in, feet first. And behold! The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentecostal tongues, and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over; and my mother became that beautiful fire.

The door fell; and they said that if we wanted to see it all through, we should come back in an hour and a half. I remembered the wasted little figure with the wonderful face, and said ‘Too long’ to myself; but we went off and looked at the Hampstead Garden Suburb (in which I have shares), and telephoned messages to the theatre, and bought books, and enjoyed ourselves generally. . .

The end was wildly funny: she would have enjoyed it enormously. When we returned we looked down through an opening in the floor to a lower floor close below. There we saw a roomy kitchen, with a big cement table and two cooks busy at it. They had little tongs in their hands, and they were deftly and busily picking nails and scraps of coffin handles out of Mamma’s dainty little heap of ashes and samples of bone. Mamma herself being at that moment leaning over beside me, shaking with laughter. Then they swept her up into a sieve, and shook her out; so that there was a heap of dust and a heap of calcined bone scraps. And Mamma said in my ear, ‘Which of the two heaps is me, I wonder!’

And that merry episode was the end, except for making dust of the bone scraps and scattering them on a flower bed.

O grave, where is thy victory?

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Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 12:00 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Carpenter’s Son

To the Gallows

Here the hangman stops his cart:
Now the best of friends must part.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.

Oh, at home had I but stayed
‘Prenticed to my father’s trade,
Had I stuck to plane and adze,
I had not been lost, my lads.

Then I might have built perhaps
Gallows-trees for other chaps,
Never dangled on my own,
Had I but left ill alone.”

Now, you see, they hang me high,
And the people passing by
Stop to shake their fists and curse;
So ’tis come from ill to worse.”

Here hang I, and right and left
Two poor fellows hang for theft:
All the same’s the luck we prove,
Though the midmost hangs for love.

Comrades all, that stand and gaze,
Walk henceforth in other ways;
See my neck and save your own:
Comrades all, leave ill alone.

Make some day a decent end,
Shrewder fellows than your friend.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.

—A E Housman

Read by Pete Postlethwaite

Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 2:51 PM  Comments (2)  
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Eyewitness: The View from a Lifeboat

Titanic Sinking

The Titanic: From a Lifeboat, I5 April 1912

Mrs D H Bishop

We did not begin to understand the situation till we were perhaps a mile or more away from the Titanic. Then we could see the rows of lights along the decks begin to slant gradually upward from the bow. Very slowly the lines of light began to point downward at a greater and greater angle. The sinking was so slow that you could not perceive the lights of the deck changing their position. The slant seemed to be greater about every quarter of an hour. That was the only difference.

In a couple of hours, though, she began to go down more rapidly. Then the fearful sight began. The people in the ship were just beginning to realize how great their danger was. When the forward part of the ship dropped suddenly at a faster rate, so that the upward slope became marked, there was a sudden rush of passengers on all the decks towards the stern. It was like a wave. We could see the great black mass of people in the steerage sweeping to the rear part of the boat and breaking through into the upper decks. At the distance of about a mile we could distinguish everything through the night, which was perfectly clear. We could make out the increasing excitement on board the boat as the people, rushing to and fro, caused the deck lights to disappear and reappear as they passed iri front of them.

This panic went on, it seemed, for an hour. Then suddenly the ship seemed to shoot up out of the water and stand there perpendicularly. It seemed to us that it stood upright in the water for four full minutes.

Then it began to slide gently downwards. Its speed increased as it went down head first, so that the stern shot down with a rush.

The lights continued to burn till it sank. We could see the people packed densely in the stern till it was gone. . .

As the ship sank we could hear the screaming a mile away. Gradually it became fainter and fainter and died away. Some of the lifeboats that had room for more might have gone to their rescue, but it would have meant that those who were in the water would have swarmed aboard and sunk her.

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Published in: on January 16, 2010 at 2:19 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Just by Deciding It

If you were with me, I’d be thinking
Of a drive out to the white lake
Even though it’s raining.
We could watch the mallards’ mating dance
And eat a hamburger, or listen
To Vivaldi on the radio, an oboe and guitar.

Once I tried learning to play the guitar.
You’re always thinking
I know how, but I don’t. If you’d listen
When I tell you these things. . . The lake
Is rattled now, I imagine, by the dance
Of lightning, flocks ascending. The reigning

Species this fall is blue teal, but when it’s raining
They disappear. Sometimes I’ve picked up your guitar
As if, just by deciding it, my fingers could dance
Over the strings. And I wouldn’t be thinking
About anything but, maybe, mist on a lake,
And I’d step out of my body and listen.

Brent, listen:
You can hardly hear it raining
From the banks that surround our tender lake
Like the body of a guitar
Around its vacant well. Thinking
About it, not like a death, but like a dance,

We are locked arm in arm; the dance
Depends on the distance between us. We listen
For the counterpoint, thinking
It’s our one hope: to love rain when it’s raining.
The flood hits the roof like chords on a guitar.
If we were together the lake

Could be all ours. No one comes to the lake
On a day like this. No one watches ducks dance
Or holds his breath to hear their quiet — Listen —
Almost inaudible banter, like me on the guitar:
Strumming but muted. It has stopped raining.
If you were here, what would we be thinking?

I lie down by the lake and listen.
Stop thinking for a minute. It isn’t even raining.
That’s you in the ground dancing. That’s me on the
guitar.

—Myrna Stone

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Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 8:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness.
—H L Mencken
Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 2:25 PM  Leave a Comment  
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To Elsie

William Carlos Williams

The pure products of America
go crazy—
mountain folk from Kentucky

or the ribbed north end of
Jersey
with its isolate lakes and

valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
old names
and promiscuity between

devil-may-care men who have taken
to railroading
out of sheer lust of adventure—

and young slatterns, bathed
in filth
from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night
with gauds
from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them
character
but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags-succumbing without
emotion
save numbed terror

under some hedge of choke-cherry
or viburnum-
which they cannot express—

Unless it be that marriage
perhaps
with a dash of Indian blood

will throw up a girl so desolate
so hemmed round
with disease or murder

that she’ll be rescued by an
agent—
reared by the state and

sent out at fifteen to work in
some hard-pressed
house in the suburbs—

some doctor’s family, some Elsie—
voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us—
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

and we degraded prisoners
destined
to hunger until we eat filth

while the imagination strains
after deer
going by fields of goldenrod in

the stifling heat of September
Somehow
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
something
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

—William Carlos Williams

Recited by the Poet William Carlos Williams

Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 2:17 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: Finding Robinson Crusoe

Mâs a Tierra Island

Robinson Crusoe Found, 2 February 1709

Woodes Rogers

Selkirk, prototype of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, was a shoemaker’s son who ran away to sea and joined a band of buccaneers. He was put ashore in September 1704 on the uninhabited Mâs a Tierra Island in the Juan Fernandez cluster, 400 miles west of Valparaiso, Chile.

[Spelling and punctuation are faithful to the original.]

Our pinnace return’d from the shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat-skins, who look’d wilder than the first owners of them. He had been on the island four years and four months, being left there by Captain Stradling in the Cinque-Ports. His name was Alexander Selkirk, a Scotchman, who had been Master of the Cinque-Ports, a ship that came here last with Captain Dampier, who told me that this was the best man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a mate on board our ship.

‘Twas he that made the fire last night when he saw our ships, which he judg’d to be English. During his stay here he saw several ships pass by but only two came in to anchor. As he went to view them he found them to be Spanish and retired from ’em, upon which they shot at him. Had they been French, he would have submitted, but chose to risque dying alone on the Iland, rather than fall into the hands of the Spaniards in these parts, because he apprehended they would murder him, or make a slave of him in the mines; for he fear’d they would spare no stranger that might be capable of discovering the South Sea. The Spaniards had landed before he knew what they were, and they came so near him that he had much ado to escape: for they not only shot at him, but pursue’d him into the woods, where he climb’d to the top of a tree at the foot of which they made water, and kill’d several goats just by, but went off again without discovering him. He told us he was born at Largo in the county of Fife, Scotland, and was bred a sailor from his youth. The reason of his being left here was a difference betwixt him and his captain. . . . He had with him his clothes and bedding, with a firelock, some powder, bullets, and tobacco, a hatchet, a knife, a kettle, a Bible, some practical pieces, and his mathematical instruments and books.

He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the tirst eight months had much ado to bear up against melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two huts with piemento trees, cover’d them with long grass, and lin’d them with the skins of goats which he killed with his gun as he wanted, so long as his powder lasted, which was but a pound, and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of piemento wood together upon his knee. In the lesser hut, at some distance from the other, he dressed his victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employed himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying, so that he said he was a better Christian while in this solitude, than ever he was before, or than he was afraid he should ever be again. At tirst he never eat anything till hunger constrain’d him, partly for grief, and partly for want of bread and salt; nor did he go to bed till he could watch no longer. The piemento wood, which burnt very clear, serv’d him both for firing and candle, and refresh’d him with its fragrant smell. He might have had fish enough, but could not eat ’em for want of salt, because they occasion’d a looseness; except Crawfish, which are there as large as lobsters and very good. These he sometimes boiled, and at other times broiled as he did his goats flesh, of which he made very good broth, for they are not so rank as ours; he kept an account of 500 that he kill’d while there, and caught as many more, which he marked on the ear and let go. When his powder fail’d he took them by speed of foot; for his way of living, and continual exercise of walking and running, clear’d him of all gross humours, so that he ran with wonderful swiftness thro the woods, and up the rocks and hills, as we perceiv’d when we employ’d him to catch goats for us. We had a bull dog which we sent with several of our nimblest runners to help him in catching goats; but he distanc’d and tir’d both the dog and the men, catch’d the goats and brought ’em to us on his back. He told us that his agility in pursuing a goat had once like to have cost him his life; he pursue’d it with so much eagerness that he catch’d hold of it on the brink of a precipice of which he was not aware, the bushes having hid it from him so that he fell with the goat down the said precipice a great height, and was so stun’d and bruised with the fall that he narrowly escap’d with his life, and when he came to his senses found the goat dead under him. He lay there about 24 hours and was scarce able to crawl to his hut which was about a mile distant, or to stir abroad again in ten days. He came at last to relish his meat well enough without salt or bread, and in the season had plenty of good turnips which had been sow’d there by Captain Dampier’s men, and have now overspread some acres of ground. He had enough of good cabbage from the cabbage trees and season’d his meat with the fruit of the piemento trees, which is the same as the Jamaica pepper, and smells deliciously. He found there also a black pepper called Maragita, which was very good to expel wind, and against griping of the guts. He soon wore out all his shoes and clothes by running thro the woods; and at last, being forced to shift without them, his feet became so hard that he ran everywhere without annoyance, and it was some time before he could wear shoes after we found him. For not being used to any so long, his feet swelled when he came first to wear ’em again. After he had conquer’d his melancholy he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his name on the trees, and the time of his being left and continuance there. He was at first much pester’d with cats and rats, that had bred in great numbers from some of each species which had got ashore from ships that put in there to wood and water. The rats gnaw’d his feet and clothes while asleep, which obliged him to cherish the cats with his goats flesh; by which many of them became so tame that they would lie about him in hundreds, and soon deliver’d him from the rats.

He likewise tam’d some kids, and to divert himself would now and then sing and dance with them and his cats; so that by the care of Providence, and vigour of his youth, being now about 30 years old, he came at last to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude and to be very easy. When his clothes wore out he made himself a coat and cap of goatskins, which he stitch’d together with little thongs of the same that he cut with his knife. He had no other needle but a nail, and when his knife was wore to the back, he made others as well as he could of some iron hoops that were left ashore, which he beat thin and ground upon stones. Having some linen cloth by him, he sow’d himself shirts with a nail and stitch’d ’em with the worsted of his old stockings, which he pull’d out on purpose. He had his last shirt on when we found him in the island.

At his first coming on board us, he had so much forgot his language for want of use, that we could scarce understand him, for he seemed to speak his words by halves. We offer’d him a dram, but he would not touch it, having drank nothing but water since his being there, and ’twas some time before he could relish our victuals. He could give us an account of no other product of the Island than what we have mentioned except small black plums, which are very good, but hard to come at, the trees which bear ’em growing on high mountains and rocks.

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Here’s a bit more information on the subject that I trust some will find interesting:

In 1704, a 28-year-old Scottish sailor named Alexander Selkirk found himself in a fix. He had taken up privateering—piracy with an official seal, in other words—and had spent too much time cooped up on a galley with an irascible captain. Selkirk made a potentially catastrophic decision following his demotion after a squabble with the captain about the seaworthiness of their ship. He asked to be put ashore on the island pictured above. Though remote, the 36-square-mile island contained large stores of good water from which passing ships would replenish their supplies, and Selkirk apparently figured that it would not be long before another ship came along.

Selkirk had been in trouble before. He had gone to sea in the first place to escape punishment for “indecent carriage,” and local court records show that Selkirk and his kin were often hauled before the bench for fighting and public drunkenness. He had, as they say, issues with authority, and, once aboard ship, a tendency to scrap with his shipmates. He was moody and irascible, though he was also a devout reader of the Bible and a human jukebox of hymns.

Selkirk would remain on his island for about five years. Then, 300 years ago, in 1709, Selkirk was rescued by a British ship commanded by Woodes Rogers, author of the piece above, who was himself a privateer.

Ten years later, in 1719, the ever-enigmatic writer Daniel Defoe, who must have recognized something of himself in Selkirk, brought forth Robinson Crusoe.

When archaeologist Daisuke Takahashi explored what is now called Robinson Crusoe Island in 1994–95, he found that Selkirk had made a comfortable place for himself in a saddle below tall mountains about a mile from the sea, where he could keep an eye out for passing vessels and threats alike. As Takahashi writes, “the site at Aguas Buenas . . . is adjacent to a good supply of fresh water—a vigorous stream that tumbles down the valley to the sea in Cumberland Bay. The surrounding forest still provides many things to eat and in Selkirk’s day was probably full of goats.”

The Spanish had introduced the goats to the island a century earlier; the people did not remain long on that first attempt to settle, but the goats endured and live on the island still. In the 19th century, Chileans arrived, and about 600 people live on the island today, many employed in fishing and lobstering.

Rogers would become governor of the Bahamas in recognition of his success as a privateer for the English crown, and he suppressed the last of the pirate trade in the Caribbean.

Selkirk died aboard the HMS Weymouth off the coast of Ghana on December 13, 1721, having signed up for another stint at sea.

Defoe died on the run from creditors, having made and lost many fortunes besides the one he earned from Robinson Crusoe. And Selkirk’s island home is part of an extensive Chilean national park, named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1977 in recognition of its rare evergreen rainforest.

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Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 1:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Madness

FROM Rules Of Prey by John Sandford

In moments of introspection, the maddog had rooted through his psyche, seeking the genesis of his insanity. He decided that it had not come all at once, but had grown. He remembered those lonely weeks of isolation on the ranch with his mother, while his father was in Dallas playing his games. The maddog would work with his .22 rifle, sniping the ground squirrels. If he hit a squirrel just right, hit it in the hindquarters, rolled it away from its hole, it would struggle and chitter and try to claw its way back to the nest, dragging itself with its front paws.

All the other ground squirrels, from adjacent holes, would stand on the hills of sand they’d excavated from their dens and watch. Then he could pick off a second one, and that would bring out more, and then a third, until an entire colony was watching a half-dozen wounded ground squirrels trying to drag themselves back to their nests.

He would wound six or seven, shooting from a prone position, then stand and walk over to the nests and finish them with his pocket knife. Sometimes he skinned them out alive, whipping off their hides while they struggled in his hands. After a while, he began stringing their ears, keeping the string in the loft of a machine shed. At the end of one summer, he had more than three hundred sets of ears.

He had the first orgasm of his young life as he lay prone on the edge of a hay field sniping ground squirrels. The long spasm was like death itself. Afterward he unbuttoned his jeans and pulled open the front of his underwear to look at the wet semen stains and he said to himself, “Boy, that did it . . . boy, that did it.” He said it over and over, and after that, the passion came more often as he hunted over the ranch.

Suppose, he thought, that it had been different. Suppose that he’d had playmates, girls, and they had gone to play doctor out in one of the sheds. You show me yours, I’ll show you mine. . . . Would that have made all the difference? He didn’t know. By the time he was fourteen, it was too late. His mind had been turned.

A girl lived a mile down the road. She was five or six years older than he. Daughter of a real rancher. She rode by on a hayrack once, her mother towing it with a tractor, the girl wearing a sweat-soaked T-shirt that showed her nipples puckered against the dirty cloth. The maddog was fourteen and felt the stirring of a powerful desire and said aloud, “I would love her and kill her.”

He was mad.

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Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 10:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Bombing of Dresden, February 1945

Dresden before the bombing

The Bombing of Dresden by Margaret Freyer, survivor

Dresden, noted as one of the world’s most beautiful cities—’Florence on the Elbe’—was almost completely destroyed during 13-14 February 1945 by 800 British and US aircraft.

I stood by the entrance and waited until no flames came licking in, then I quickly slipped through and out into the street. I had my suitcase in one hand and was wearing a white fur coat which by now was anything but white. I also wore boots and long trousers. Those boots had been a lucky choice, it turned out.

Because of the flying sparks and the fire-storm I couldn’t see anything at first. A witches’ cauldron was waiting for me out there: no street, only rubble nearly a metre high, glass, girders, stones, craters. I tried to get rid of the sparks by constantly patting them off my coat. It was useless. I stopped doing it, stumbled, and someone behind me called out, ‘Take your coat off, it’s started to burn.’ In the pervading extreme heat I hadn’t even noticed. I took off the coat and dropped it.

Dresden after the bombing

Next to me a woman was screaming continually, ‘My den’s burning down, my den’s burning down,’ and dancing in the street. As I go on, I can still hear her screaming but I don’t see her again. I run, I stumble, anywhere. I don’t even know where I am any more. I’ve lost all sense of direction because all I can see is three steps ahead.

Suddenly I fall into a big hole – a bomb crater, about six metres wide and two metres deep, and I end up down there lying on top of three women. I shake them by their clothes and start to scream at them, telling them they must get out of here – but they don’t move any more. I believe I was severely shocked by this incident; I seemed to have lost all emotional feeling. Quickly, I climbed across the women, pulled my suitcase after me, and crawled on all fours out of the crater.

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. It’s only my eyes which take this in; I myself feel nothing. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. Why? What for? I don’t know, I just stumble on. The fire-storm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. I hold another wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and my face are burning; it feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips.

On my right I see a big, burnt-out shop where lots of people are standing. I join them, but think, ‘No, I can’t stay here either, this place is completely surrounded by fire.’ I leave all these people behind, and stumble on. Where to? But every time towards those places where it is dark, in case there is no fire there. I have no conception of what the street actually looked like. But it is especially from those dark patches that the people come who wring their hands and cry the same thing over and over again: ‘You can’t carry on there, we’ve just come from there, everything is burning there!’ Wherever and to whomsoever I turn, always that same answer.

One of hundreds of such pyres

In front of me is something that might be a street, filled with a hellish rain of sparks which look like enormous rings of fire when they hit the ground. I have no choice. I must go through. I press another wet handkerchief to my mouth and almost get through, but I fall and am convinced that I cannot go on. It’s hot. Hot! My hands are burning like fire. I just drop my suitcase, I am past caring, and too weak. At least, there’s nothing to lug around with me any more.

I stumbled on towards where it was dark. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then – to my utter horror and amazement – I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling that they were being shot, but my mind could not understand what was really happening. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders. I fall then, stumbling over a fallen woman and as I lie right next to her I see how her clothes are burning away. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: ‘I don’t want to burn to death – no, no burning – I don’t want to burn!’ Once more I fall down and feel that I am not going to be able to get up again, but the fear of being burnt pulls me to my feet. Crawling, stumbling, my last handkerchief pressed to my mouth. . . I do not know how many people I fell over. I knew only one feeling: that I must not burn.

Then my handkerchiefs are all finished – it’s dreadfully hot – I can’t go on and I remain lying on the ground. Suddenly a soldier appears in front of me. I wave, and wave again. He comes over to me and I whisper into his ear (my voice has almost gone), ‘Please take me with you, I don’t want to bum.’ But that soldier was much too weak himself to lift me to my feet. He laid my two arms crosswise over my breast and stumbled on across me. I followed him with my eyes until he disappears somewhere in the darkness.

I try once more to get up on my feet, but I can only manage to crawl forward on all fours. I can still feel my body, I know I’m still alive. Suddenly, I’m standing up, but there’s something wrong, everything seems so far away and I can’t hear or see properly any more. As I found out later, like all the others, I was suffering from lack of oxygen. I must have stumbled forwards roughly ten paces when I all at once inhaled fresh air. There’s a breeze! I take another breath, inhale deeply, and my senses clear. In front of me is a broken tree. As I rush towards it, I know that I have been saved, but am unaware that the park is the Bürgerwiese.

I walk on a little and discover a car. I’m pleased and decide to spend the night in it. The car is full of suitcases and boxes but I find enough room on the rear seats to squeeze in. Another stroke of
good luck for me is that the car’s windows are all broken and I have to keep awake putting out the sparks which drifted in. I don’t know how long I sat there, when a hand suddenly descended on my shoulder and a man’s voice said, ‘Hello! you must get out of there.’ I got such a fright, because obviously someone was determined to force me away from my safe hiding place. I said, with great fear in my voice, ‘Please, allow me to stay here, I’ll give you all the money I’ve got on me.’ (If I think about this now it almost sounds like a joke.) But the answer I got was ‘No, I don’t want your money. The car is on fire.

‘Good God! I leapt out immediately and could see that indeed all four tyres were burning. I hadn’t noticed because of the tremendous heat.

Now I looked at the man and recognized him as the soldier who had put my arms across my chest. When I asked him, he confirmed it. Then he started to weep. He continued to stroke my back, mumbling words about bravery, Russian campaign. . . but this here, this is hell. I don’t grasp his meaning and offer him a cigarette.

We walk on a little way and discover two crouching figures. They were two men, one a railwayman who was crying because (in the smoke and debris) he could not find the way to his home. The other was a civilian who had escaped from a cellar together with sixty people, but had had to leave his wife and children behind, due to some dreadful circumstances. All three men were crying now but I just stood there, incapable of a single tear. It was as if I was watching a film. We spent half the night together, sitting on the ground too exhausted even to carry on a conversation. The continuous explosions didn’t bother us, but the hollow cries for help which came continuously from all directions were gruesome. Towards six o’clock in the morning, we parted.

I spent all the daylight hours which followed in the town searching for my fiance. I looked for him amongst the dead, because hardly any living beings were to be seen anywhere. What I saw is so horrific that I shall hardly be able to describe it. Dead, dead, dead everywhere. Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched, lying as if they were asleep. Women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off. Many women, many young girls, many small children, soldiers who were only identifiable as such by the metal buckles on their belts, almost all of them naked. Some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other.

From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. The static water tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again. Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies. People whose clothes were still glowing. . . I think I was incapable of absorbing the meaning of this cruelty any more, for there were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated; and all the people lying so close together that it looked as if someone had put them down there, street by street, deliberately.

I then went through the Grosser Garten and there is one thing I did realize. I was aware that I had constantly to brush hands away from me, hands which belonged to people who wanted me to take them with me, hands which clung to me. But I was much too weak to lift anyone up. My mind took all this in vaguely, as if seen through a veil. In fact, I was in such a state that I did not realize that there was a third attack on Dresden. Late that afternoon I collapsed in the Ostra-Allee, where two men took me to a friend who lived on the outskirts of the city.

I asked for a mirror and did not recognize myself any more. My face was a mass of blisters and so were my hands. My eyes were narrow slits and puffed up, my whole body was covered in little black, pitted marks. I cannot understand to this day how I contracted these marks, because I was wearing a pair of long trousers and a jacket. Possibly the fire-sparks ate their way through my clothing.

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Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 12:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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I’ll see your Florsheim and raise you a Gucci

Wilson Mizner’s opponent at a game of draw poker took out his wallet and tossed it onto the table, saying, “I call you.” Mizner calmly took off his right shoe and put it on the table and announced, “If we’re playing for leather, I raise.”

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 8:50 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Museum Of Desire

So much is there,
so much that someone wanted once,
that no one wants now.
And each of the visitors
is thinking of the thing
he loves least: the ugly child,
the sweetheart grown fat and stupid.
In this wing, the girl,
rich and unappreciated, who wants
nothing more than to resemble
her own portrait;
in that, the boy
who runs to catch the ball
and runs and runs
but does not catch it.
And in his office,
the curator, a man sunk
in age, in the depth of his sorrow,
his beautiful manners.
As he sips his coffee,
a light inside the cup
bathes his face;
it is the world,
and the world is burning.

—David Kirby

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Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 8:36 AM  Comments (2)  
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Fragments of a Forgotten War

"The Grey Man Dances" by George Grosz 1949, Grosz Collection

Read by the Poet Suji Kwock Kim

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Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 1:03 PM  Comments (2)  
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Two Young Women

A fragrance heavy as dust, and two young women
motionless as manikins, dressed in black.

The white moth of timelessness flutters about them,
unable to leave the cool light of their faces.

One holds the other’s head in her hands
like a mirror. The other leans into the long fingers

knowing how heavy her beauty is. Eye to eye,
breath into breath, they lean as if frozen forever:

a white cup with two lithe figures painted in black
and the warm wine brimming.

—Ted Kooser

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Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 11:47 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Just the DCM

Lance-Corporal Baxter Wins the DCM, Western Front, September 1915

Robert Graves [I, Claudius; Goodbye To All That]

From the morning of September 24th to the night of October 3rd, I had in all eight hours of sleep. I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whisky a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since; it certainly helped me then. We had no blankets, greatcoats, or waterproof sheets, nor any time or material to build new shelters. The rain poured down. Every night we went out to fetch in the dead of the other battalions. The Germans continued indulgent and we had few casualties. After the first day or two the corpses swelled and stank. I vomited more than once while superintending the carrying. Those we could not get in from the German wire continued to swell until the wall of the stomach collapsed, either naturally or when punctured by a bullet; a disgusting smell would float across. The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.

On the morning of the 27th a cry arose from No Man’s Land. A wounded soldier of the Middlesex had recovered consciousness after two days. He lay close to the German wire. Our men heard it and looked at each other. We had a tender-hearted lance-corporal named Baxter. He was the man to boil up a special dixie for the sentries of his section when they came off duty. As soon as he heard the wounded Middlesex man, he ran along the trench calling for a volunteer to help fetch him in. Of course, no one would go; it was death to put one’s head over the parapet. When he came running to ask me I excused myself as being the only officer in the company. I would come out with him at dusk, I said – not now. So he went alone. He jumped quickly over the parapet, then strolled across No Man’s Land, waving a handkerchief; the Germans fired to frighten him, but since he persisted they let him come up close. Baxter continued towards them and, when he got to the Middlesex man, stopped and pointed to show the Germans what he was at. Then he dressed the man’s wounds, gave him a drink of rum and some biscuit that he had with him, and promised to be back again at nightfall. He did come back, with a stretcher party, and the man eventually recovered. I recommended Baxter for the Victoria Cross, being the only officer who had witnessed the action, but the authorities thought it worth no more than a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

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Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 11:31 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Be slow of tongue and quick of eye.

—Miguel de Cervantes

Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 3:30 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Absence

There are men and women huddled in rooms tonight
discussing dark matter, the non-stuff, the anti-
things which fill the universe. Imagine writing
that grant. Their children are of relatively
specific dimension, their houses occupy
nearly calculable space. Seven have dogs.
One dreams of playing in the British Open
nude. Yes, exactly like your father.
Of special interest is the woman in an office
in Princeton in a swivel chair looking
through a window at the pond where Einstein’s
said to have sat and thought about sailboats,
the little ones German children race on ponds.
She whispers Bolivia, a word she caught
on a map earlier and hasn’t been able to shake.
She has never been there. She has never left
the east, finds Bar Harbor exotic, thinks
of lobsters as the first wave of an alien invasion.
Together with a colleague she is trying to total
the mass of everything, the mental equivalent
of 27 clowns cramming into a 60s vintage Volvo.
What she likes about the word Bolivia
beside the sexual things it does to the tongue
is her feeling that anything you do there
might cause people to dance. She would like
to dance now. If most of what exists
can’t be seen or spread on toast
or wedged under a door in summer
when you want to fall asleep on the couch
to a wind that began somewhere near Topeka,
it’s acceptable to dance on a desk in an office
paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation
in an attempt to resurrect that once
good name. And even as she pictures herself
clearing and scaling the desk,
she is striding to the board and brushing
away a series of calculations
and replacing them with another, more
elegant run, adding at the end the curlicue
of infinity which normalizes the equation,
which makes her noodling momentarily right
with God and explains how a pinhole
could have the density of a universe, how half
of Jupiter could lie balled in your shoe.
Bolivia, she says, spinning. Bolivia,
she repeats, grabbing Bill Morrison
by the collar. Bolivia, he answers,
embracing the odd particulars of revelation,
kissing her hand in a burlesque of manners,
knowing it’s just made chalk beautiful,
aligned the glyphs of mass and spin
into a schematic of everything. Then briefly,
looking over his shoulder at the board,
she realizes in essence she’s trapped
nothing, not the stars but the black leading
between the light, the same absence
she feels at night when looking up a force
like wind rises through her body, leaving
no trace except the need to be surrounded
by anything more comforting than space.

—Bob Hicok

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Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Hemingway on German Inflation, 1922

 

4,200 Billion Marks = $1.00 US

 

19 September 1922

Ernest Hemingway

During the immediate post-war years the value of the German mark deteriorated, largely as a result of reparation payments. In 1922 the exchange rate fell from 162 marks to the US dollar to 7000. By November 1923 it was down to 4200 billion marks to the dollar.

Kehl, Germany: The boy in a Strasburg motor agency where we went to make some inquiries about crossing the frontier, said, ‘Oh yes. It is easy to get over into Germany. All you have to do is go across the bridge.’

‘Don’t you need a visa?’ I said.

‘No. Just a permit stamp to go from the French.’ He took his passport out of his pocket and showed the back covered with rubber stamps. ‘See? I live there now because it is so much cheaper. It’s the way to make money.’

It is all right.

It is a three-mile streetcar ride from the centre of Strasburg out to the Rhine and when you get to the end of the line the car stops and everyone piles out to herd into a long picket-fenced pen that leads to the bridge. A French soldier with a fixed bayonet loafs back and forth across the road and watches the girls in the passport pen from under his steel-blue helmet. There is an ugly brick custom house at the left of the bridge and a wooden shed at the right where the French official sits behind a counter and stamps passports.

The Rhine is swift, yellow and muddy, runs between low, green banks, and swirls and sucks at the concrete abutments of the long, iron bridge. At the other end of the bridge you see the ugly little town of Kehl looking like some dreary section of Dundas [Toronto].

If you are a French citizen with a French passport the man back of the counter simply stamps your passport ‘sortie Pont de Kehl’ and you go across the bridge into occupied Germany. If you are a citizen of some other of the allied countries the official looks at you suspiciously, asks you where you are from, what you are going to Kehl for, how long you are going to stay, and then stamps your passport with the same sortie. If you should happen to be a citizen of Kehl who has been in Strasburg on business and is returning to dinner—and as Kehl’s interests are bound up in Strasburg’s as all suburbs are to the city they are attached to, you would be bound to have to go to Strasburg on business if you had any kind of business at all—you are held in line for fifteen to twenty minutes, your name is looked up in a card index to see if you have ever spoken against the French regime, your pedigree taken, questions put to you and finally you too are given the same old sortie. Everyone can cross the bridge but the French make it very nasty for the Germans.

Once across the muddy Rhine you are in Germany, and the German end of the bridge is guarded by a couple of the meekest and most discouraged-looking German soldiers you have ever seen. Two French soldiers with fixed bayonets walk up and down and the two German soldiers, unarmed, lean against a wall and look on. The French soldiers are in full equipment and steel helmets, but the Germans wear the old loose tunics and high peaked, peacetime caps.

I asked a Frenchman the functions and duties of the German guard.

‘They stand there,’ he answered.

There were no marks to be had in Strasburg, the mounting exchange had cleaned the bankers out days ago, so we changed some French money in the railway station at Kehl. For 10 francs I received 670 marks. Ten francs amounted to about 90 cents in Canadian money. That 90 cents lasted Mrs Hemingway and me for a day of heavy spending and at the end of the day we had 120 marks left!

Our first purchase was from a fruit stand beside the main street of Kehl where an old woman was selling apples, peaches and plums. We picked out five very good-looking apples and gave the old woman a 50 mark note. She gave us back 38 marks in change. A very nice-looking, white-bearded old gentleman saw us buy the apples and raised his hat.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ he said, rather timidly, in German, ‘how much were the apples?’

I counted the change and told him 12 marks.

He smiled and shook his head. ‘I can’t pay it. It is too much.’

He went up the street walking very much as white-bearded old gentlemen of the old regime walk in all countries, but he had looked very longingly at the apples. I wish I had offered him some. Twelve marks, on that day, amounted to a little under 2 cents. The old man, whose life’s savings were probably, as most of the nonprofiteer classes are, invested in German pre-war and war bonds, could not afford a 12 mark expenditure. He is a type of the people whose incomes do not increase with the falling purchasing value of the mark and the krone.

With marks at 800 to the dollar, or 8 to a cent, we priced articles in the windows of the different Kehl shops. Peas were 18 marks a pound, beans 16 marks; a pound of Kaiser coffee, there are still many ‘Kaiser’ brands in the German republic, could be had for 34 marks. Gersten coffee, which is not coffee at all but roasted grain, sold for 14 marks a pound. Flypaper was 150 marks a package. A scythe blade cost 150 marks, too, or 18 3/4 cents! Beer was 10 marks a stein or 1 3/4 cents.

Kehl’s best hotel, which is a very well turned-out place, served a five-course table d’hôte meal for 120 marks, which amounts to 15 cents in our money. The same meal could not be duplicated in Strasburg, three miles away, for a dollar.

Because of the customs regulations, which are very strict on persons returning from Germany, the French cannot come over to Kehl and buy up all the cheap goods they would like to. But they can come over and eat. It is a sight every afternoon to see the mob that storms the German pastry shops and tea places. The Germans make very good pastries, wonderful pastries, in fact, that, at the present tumbling mark rate, the French of Strasburg can buy for a less amount apiece than the smallest French coin, the one sou piece. This miracle of exchange makes a swinish spectacle where the youth of the town of Strasburg crowd into the German pastry shop to eat themselves sick and gorge on fluffy, cream-filled slices of German cake at 5 marks the slice. The contents of a pastry shop are swept clear in half an hour.

In a pastry shop we visited, a man in an apron, wearing blue glasses, appeared to be the proprietor. He was assisted by a typical ‘boche’-looking German with close-cropped head. The place was jammed with French people of all ages and descriptions, all gorging cakes, while a young girl in a pink dress, silk stockings, with a pretty, weak face and pearl ear-rings in her ears took as many of their orders for fruit and vanilla ices as she could fill.

She didn’t seem to care very much whether she filled the orders or not. There were soldiers in town and she kept going over to look out of the window.

The proprietor and his helper were surly and didn’t seem particularly happy when all the cakes were sold. The mark was falling faster than they could bake.

Meanwhile out in the street a funny little train jolted by, carrying the workmen with their dinner-pails home to the outskirts of the town, profiteers’ motor cars tore by raising a cloud of dust that settled over the trees and the fronts of all the buildings, and inside the pastry shop young French hoodlums swallowed their last cakes and French mothers wiped the sticky mouths of their children. It gave you a new aspect on exchange.

As the last of the afternoon tea-ers and pastry-eaters went Strasburg-wards across the bridge the first of the exchange pirates coming over to raid Kehl for cheap dinners began to arrive. The two streams passed each other on the bridge and the two disconsolate-Iooking German soldiers looked on. As the boy in the motor agency said, ‘It’s the way to make money.’

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Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 11:03 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Song of the Old Mother

My Old Mother's Song by Michael De Munkacsy ca 1865

I RISE in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow.
And then I must scrub, and bake, and sweep,
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
But the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons, the blue and the red,
And their day goes over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift up a tress.
While I must work, because I am old
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

—William Butler Yeats

Recited by the Poet William Butler Yeats

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 5:13 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Unlucky Sneeze

FROM A House For Mr. Biswas by V S Naipaul

[V S Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001.]

Mr. Biswas lost his sixth finger before he was nine days old. It simply came off one night and Bipti had an unpleasant turn when, shaking out the sheets one morning, she saw this tiny finger tumble to the ground. Bissoondaye thought this an excellent sign and buried the finger behind the cowpen at the back of the house, not far from where she had buried Mr. Biswas’s navel-string.

In the days that followed Mr. Biswas was treated with attention and respect. His brothers and sisters were slapped if they disturbed his sleep, and the flexibility of his limbs was regarded as a matter of importance. Morning and evening he was massaged with coconut oil. All his joints were exercised; his arms and legs were folded diagonally across his red shining body; the big toe of his right foot was made to touch his left shoulder, the big toe of his left foot was made to touch his right shoulder, and both toes were made to touch his nose; finally, all his limbs were bunched together over his belly and then, with a clap and a laugh, released.

Mr. Biswas responded well to these exercises, and Bissoondaye became so confident that she decided to have a celebration on the ninth day. She invited people from the village and fed them. The pundit came and was unexpectedly gracious, though his manner suggested that but for his intervention there would have been no celebration at all. Jhagru, the barber, brought his drum, andSelochan did the Shiva dance in the cowpen, his body smeared all over with ash. There was an unpleasant moment when Raghu, Mr. Biswas’s father, appeared. He had walked; his dhoti and jacket were sweated and dusty. “Well, this is very nice,” he said.

“Celebrating. And where is the father?” “Leave this house at once,” Bissoondaye said, coming out of the kitchen at the side. “Father! What sort of father do you call yourself, when you drive your wife away every time she gets heavy-footed?”

“That is none of your business,” Raghu said. “Where is my son?”

“Go ahead. God has paid you back for your boasting and your meanness. Go and see your son. He will eat you up. Six-fingered, born in the wrong way. Go in and see him. He has an unlucky sneeze as well.”

Raghu halted. “Unlucky sneeze?”

“I have warned you. You can only see him on the twenty-first day. If you do anything stupid now the responsibility will be yours.”

From his string bed the old man muttered abuse at Raghu. “Shameless, wicked. When I see the behaviour of this man I begin to feel that the Black Age has come.”

The subsequent quarrel and threats cleared the air. Raghu confessed he had been in the wrong and had already suffered much for it. Bipti said she was willing to go back to him. And he agreed to come again on the twenty-first day.

To prepare for that day Bissoondaye began collecting dry coconuts. She husked them, grated the kernels and set about extracting the oil the pundit had prescribed. It was a long job of boiling and skimming and boiling again, and it was surprising how many coconuts it took to make a little oil. But the oil was ready in time, and Raghu came, neatly dressed, his hair plastered flat and shining, his moustache trimmed, and he was very correct as he took off his hat and went into the dark inner room of the hut which smelled warmly of oil and old thatch. He held his hat on the right side of his face and looked down into the oil in the brass plate. Mr. Biswas, hidden from his father by the hat, and well wrapped from head to foot, was held face downwards over the oil. He didn’t like it; he furrowed his forehead, shut his eyes tight and bawled. The oil rippled, clear amber, broke up the reflection of Mr. Biswas’s face, already distorted with rage, and the viewing was over.

A few days later Bipti and her children returned home. And there Mr. Biswas’s importance steadily diminished. The time came when even the daily massage ceased.

But he still carried weight. They never forgot that he was an unlucky child and that his sneeze was particularly unlucky. Mr. Biswas caught cold easily and in the rainy season threatened his family with destitution. If, before Raghu left for the sugar-estate, Mr. Biswas sneezed, Raghu remained at home, worked on his vegetable garden in the morning and spent the afternoon making walking-sticks and sabots, or carving designs on the hafts of cutlasses and the heads of walking-sticks. His favourite design was a pair of Wellingtons; he had never owned Wellingtons but had seen them on the overseer. Whatever he did, Raghu never left the house. Even so, minor mishaps often followed Mr. Biswas’s sneeze: threepence lost in the shopping, the breaking of a bottle, the upsetting of a dish. Once Mr. Biswas sneezed on three mornings in succession.

“This boy will eat up his family in truth,” Raghu said.

One morning, just after Raghu had crossed the gutter that ran between the road and his yard, he suddenly stopped. Mr. Biswas had sneezed. Bipti ran out and said, “It doesn’t matter. He sneezed when you were already on the road.”

“But I heard him. Distinctly.”

Bipti persuaded him to go to work. About an hour or two later, while she was cleaning the rice for the midday meal, she heard shouts from the road and went out to find Raghu lying in an ox-cart, his right leg swathed in bloody bandages. He was groaning, not from pain, but from anger. The man who had brought him refused to help him into the yard: Mr. Biswas’s sneeze was too well known. Raghu had to limp in leaning on Bipti’s shoulder.

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: The Siege of Jerusalem, AD 70

Siege of Jerusalem

FROM Eyewitness To History by John Carey

Josephus

Jerusalem fell, after siege, to a Roman army under Titus. Josephus was a Jew who had gone over to the Romans.

Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring indescribable sufferings. In every house the merest hint of food sparked violence, and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life. No respect was paid even to the dying; the ruffians [anti-Roman zealots] searched them, in case they were concealing food somewhere in their clothes, or just pretending to be near to death. Gaping with hunger, like mad dogs, lawless gangs went staggering and reeling through the streets, battering upon the doors like drunkards, and so bewildered that they broke into the same house two or three times in an hour. Need drove the starving to gnaw at anything. Refuse which even animals would reject was collected and turned into food. In the end they were eating belts and shoes, and the leather stripped off their shields. Tufts of withered grass were devoured, and sold in little bundles for four drachmas.

But why dwell on the commonplace rubbish which the starving were driven to feed upon, given that what I have to recount is an act unparalleled in the history of either the Greeks or the barbarians, and as horrible to relate as it is incredible to hear? For my part I should gladly have omitted this tragedy, lest I should be suspected of a monstrous fabrication. But there were many witnesses of it among my contemporaries; and besides, I should do poor service to my country if I were to suppress the agonies she went through.

Among the residents of the region beyond Jordan was a woman called Mary, daughter of Eleazar, of the village of Bethezuba (the name means ‘House of Hyssop’). She was well off, and of good family, and had fled to Jerusalem with her relatives, where she became involved in the siege. Most of the property she had packed up and brought with her from Peraea had been plundered by the tyrants [Simon and John, leaders of the Jewish war-effort], and the rest of her treasure, together with such food as she had been able to procure, was being carried off by their henchmen in their daily raids. In her bitter resentment the poor woman cursed and abused these extortioners, and this incensed them against her. However, no one put her to death either from exasperation or pity. She grew weary of trying to find food for her kinsfolk. In any case, it was by now impossible to get any, wherever you tried. Famine gnawed at her vitals, and the fire of rage was even fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, ‘My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueller than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews.’ With these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place. But the rebels were on to her at once, smelling roast meat, and threatening to kill her instantly if she did not produce it. She assured them she had saved them a share, and revealed the remains of her child. Seized with horror and stupefaction, they stood paralysed at the sight. But she said, ‘This is my own child, and my own handiwork. Eat, for I have eaten already. Do not show yourselves weaker than a woman, or more pitiful than a mother. But if you have pious scruples, and shrink from human sacrifice, then what I have eaten can count as your share, and I will eat what is left as well.’ At that they slunk away, trembling, not daring to eat, though they were reluctant to yield even this food to the mother. The whole city soon rang with the abomination. When people heard of it, they shuddered, as though they had done it themselves.

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 1:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Afternoon by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

When I am old, and comforted,
And done with this desire,
With Memory to share my bed
And Peace to share my fire,

I’ll comb my hair in scalloped bands
Beneath my laundered cap,
And watch my cool and fragile hands
Lie light upon my lap.

And I will have a sprigged gown
With lace to kiss my throat;
I’ll draw my curtain to the town,
And hum a purring note.

And I’ll forget the way of tears,
And rock, and stir my tea.
But oh, I wish those blessed years
Were further than they be!

—Dorothy Parker

Read by the Poet Dorothy Parker

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Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 4:44 PM  Leave a Comment  
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To Lose Toulouse

Toulouse-Lautrec

Samuel Goldwyn, showing off his picture collection to a guest, announced proudly, “And this is my Toujours-Lautrec.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 2:29 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Man From Mars

FROM Dancing Girls And Other Stories by Margret Atwood

A long time ago Christine was walking through the park. She was still wearing her tennis dress; she hadn’t had time to shower and change, and her hair was held back with an elastic band. Her chunky reddish face, exposed with no softening fringe, looked like a Russian peasant’s, but without the elastic band the hair got in her eyes. The afternoon was too hot for April; the indoor courts had been steaming, her skin felt poached.

The sun had brought the old men out from wherever they spent the winter: she had read a story recently about one who lived for three years in a manhole. They sat weedishly on the benches or lay on the grass with their heads on squares of used newspaper. As she passed, their wrinkled toadstool faces drifted towards her, drawn by the movement of her body, then floated away again, uninterested.

The squirrels were out, too, foraging; two or three of them moved towards her in darts and pauses, eyes fixed on her expectantly, mouths with the ratlike receding chins open to show the yellowed front teeth. Christine walked faster, she had nothing to give them. People shouldn’t feed them, she thought; it makes them anxious and they get mangy.

Halfway across the park she stopped to take off her cardigan. As she bent over to pick up her tennis racquet again someone touched her on her freshly bared arm. Christine seldom screamed; she straightened up suddenly, gripping the handle of her racquet. It was not one of the old men, however; it was a dark-haired boy of twelve or so.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I search for Economics Building. Is it there?” He motioned towards the west.

Christine looked at him more closely. She had been mistaken: he was not young, just short. He came a little above her shoulder, but then, she was above the average height; “statuesque,” her mother called it when she was straining. He was also what was referred to in their family as “a person from another culture”: oriental without a doubt, though perhaps not Chinese. Christine judged he must be a foreign student and gave him her official welcoming smile. In high school she had been president of the United Nations Club; that year her school had been picked to represent the Egyptian delegation at the Mock Assembly. It had been an unpopular assignment-nobody wanted to be the Arabs-but she had seen it through. She had made rather a good speech about the Palestinian refugees.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s it over there. The one with the flat roof. See it?”

The man had been smiling nervously at her the whole time. He was wearing glasses with transparent plastic rims, through which his eyes bulged up at her as though through a goldfish bowl. He had not followed where she was pointing. Instead he thrust towards her a small pad of green paper and a ballpoint pen.

“You make map,” he said.

Christine set down her tennis racquet and drew a careful map. “We are here,” she said, pronouncing distinctly. “You go this way. The building is here.” She indicated the route with a dotted line and an X. The man leaned close to her, watching the progress of the map attentively; he smelled of cooked cauliflower and an unfamiliar brand of hair grease. When she had finished Christine handed the paper and pen back to him with a terminal smile.

“Wait,” the man said. He tore the piece of paper with the map off the pad, folded it carefully and put it in his jacket pocket; the jacket sleeves came down over his wrists and had threads at the edges. He began to write something; she noticed with a slight feeling of revulsion that his nails and the ends of his fingers were so badly bitten they seemed almost deformed. Several of his fingers were blue from the leaky ballpoint.

“Here is my name,” he said, holding the pad out to her.

Christine read an odd assemblage of Gs, Ys and Ns, neatly printed in block letters. “Thank you,” she said.

“You now write your name,” he said, extending the pen:

Christine hesitated. If this had been a person from her own culture she would have thought he was trying to pick her up. But then, people from her own culture never tried to pick her up; she was too big. The only one who had made the attempt was the Moroccan waiter at the beer parlour where they sometimes went after meetings, and he had been direct. He had just intercepted her on the way to the Ladies’ Room and asked and she said no; that had been that. This man was not a waiter though, but a student; she didn’t want to offend him. In his culture, whatever it was, this exchange of names on pieces of paper was probably a formal politeness, like saying thank you. She took the pen from him.

“That is a very pleasant name,” he said. He folded the paper and placed it in his jacket pocket with the map.

Christine felt she had done her duty. “Well, goodbye,” she said. “It was nice to have met you.” She bent for her tennis racquet but he had already stooped and retrieved it and was holding it with both hands in front of him, like a captured banner.

“I carry this for you.”

“Oh no, please. Don’t bother, I am in a hurry,” she said, articulating clearly. Deprived of her tennis racquet she felt weaponless. He started to saunter along the path; he was not nervous at all now, he seemed completely at ease.

Vous parlez francais?” he asked conversationally.

Oui, un petit peu,” she said. “Not very well.” How am I going to get my racquet away from him without being rude? she was wondering.

Mais vous avez un bel accent.” His eyes goggled at her through the glasses: was he being flirtatious? She was well aware that her accent was wretched.

“Look,” she said, for the first time letting her impatience show, “I really have to go. Give me my racquet, please.”

He quickened his pace but gave no sign of returning the racquet. “Where you are going?”

“Home,” she said. “My house.”

“I go with you now,” he said hopefully.

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Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 11:59 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyewitness: Viking Funeral, AD 922

FROM An Eyewitness To History by John Carey

A Viking Funeral, AD 922 Performed by Scandinavian Merchants on the Volga; Observed by an Envoy from the Caliph of Baghdad

Ibn Fadlan

I was told that the least of what they do for their chiefs when they die, is to consume them with fire. When I was finally informed of the death of one of their magnates, I sought to witness what befell. First they laid him in his grave—over which a roof was erected for the space of ten days, until they had completed the cutting and sewing of his clothes. In the case of a poor man, however, they merely build for him a boat, in which they place him, and consume it with fire. At the death of a rich man, they bring together his goods, and divide them into three parts. The first of these is for his family; the second is expended for the garments they make; and with the third they purchase strong drink, against the day when the girl resigns herself to death, and is burned with her master. To the use of wine they abandon themselves in mad fashion, drinking it day and night; and not seldom does one die with the cup in his hand.

When one of their chiefs dies, his family asks his girls and pages, ‘Which one of you will die with him?’ Then one of them answers, ‘I.’ From the time that he utters this word, he is no longer free: should he wish to draw back, he is not permitted. For the most part, however, it is the girls that offer themselves. So, when the man of whom I spoke had died, they asked his girls, ‘Who will die with him?’ One of them answered, ‘I.’ She was then committed to two girls, who were to keep watch over her, accompany her wherever she went, and even, on occasion, wash her feet. The people now began to occupy themselves with the dead man—to cut out the clothes for him, and to prepare whatever else was needful. During the whole of this period, the girl gave herself over to drinking and singing, and was cheerful and gay.

When the day was now come that the dead man and the girl were to be committed to the flames, I went to the river in which his ship lay, but found that it had already been drawn ashore. Four corner blocks of birch and other woods had been placed in position for it, while around were stationed large wooden figures in the semblance of human beings. Thereupon the ship was brought up, and placed on the timbers above-mentioned. In the meantime the people began to walk to and fro, uttering words which I did not understand. The dead man, meanwhile, lay at a distance in his grave, from which they had not yet removed him. Next they brought a couch, placed it in the ship, and covered it with Greek cloth of gold, wadded and quilted, with pillows of the same material. There came an old crone, whom they call the angel of death, and spread the articles mentioned on the couch. It was she who attended to the sewing of the garments, and to all the equipment; it was she, also, who was to slay the girl. I saw her; she was dark, thick-set, with a lowering countenance.

When they came to the grave, they removed the earth from the wooden roof, set the latter aside, and drew out the dead man in the loose wrapper in which he had died. Then I saw that he had turned quite black, by reason of the coldness of that country. Near him in the grave they had placed strong drink, fruits, and a lute; and these they now took out. Except for his colour, the dead man had not changed. They now clothed him in drawers, leggings, boots, and a kurtak and chaftan of cloth of gold, with golden buttons, placing on his head a cap made of cloth of gold, trimmed with sable. Then they carried him into a tent placed in the ship, seated him on the wadded and quilted covering, supported him with the pillows, and, bringing strong drink, fruits, and basil, placed them all beside him. Then they brought a dog, which they cut in two, and threw into the ship; laid all his weapons beside him; and led up two horses, which they chased until they were dripping with sweat, whereupon they cut them in pieces with their swords, and threw the flesh into the ship. Two oxen were then brought forward, cut in pieces, and flung into the ship. Finally they brought a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in also.

The girl who had devoted herself to death meanwhile walked to and fro, entering one after another of the tents which they had there. The occupant of each tent lay with her, saying, ‘Tell your master, “I [the man] did this only for love of you.”

When it was now Friday afternoon, they led the girl to an object which they had constructed, and which looked like the framework of a door. She then placed her feet on the extended hands of the men, was raised up above the framework, and uttered something in her language, whereupon they let her down. Then again they raised her, and she did as at first. Once more they let her down, and then lifted her a third time, while she did as at the previous times. They then handed her a hen, whose head she cut off and threw away; but the hen itself they cast into the ship. I inquired of the interpreter what it was that she had done. He replied: ‘The first time she said, “Lo, I see here my father and mother”; the second time, “Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting”; the third time, “Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in Paradise. Paradise is so beautiful, so green. With him are his men and boys. He calls me, so bring me to him.” Then they led her away to the ship.

Here she took off her two bracelets, and gave them to the old woman who was called the angel of death, and who was to murder her. She also drew off her two anklets, and passed them to the two serving-maids, who were the daughters of the so-called angel of death. Then they lifted her into the ship, but did not yet admit her to the tent. Now men came up with shields and staves, and handed her a cup of strong drink. This she took, sang over it, and emptied it. ‘With this,’ so the interpreter told me, ‘she is taking leave of those who are dear to her.’ Then another cup was handed her, which she also took, and began a lengthy song. The crone admonished her to drain the cup without lingering, and to enter the tent where her master lay. By this time, as it seemed to me, the girl had become dazed; she made as though she would enter the tent, and had brought her head forward between the tent and the ship, when the hag seized her by the head, and dragged her in. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields with the staves, in order to drown the noise of her outcries, which might have terrified the other girls, and deterred them from seeking death with their masters in the future. Then six men followed into the tent, and each and every one had carnal companionship with her. Then they laid her down by her master’s side, while two of the men seized her by the feet, and two by the hands. The old woman known as the angel of death now knotted a rope around her neck, and handed the ends to two of the men to pull. Then with a broad-bladed dagger she smote her between the ribs, and drew the blade forth, while the two men strangled her with the rope till she died.

The next of kin to the dead man now drew near, and, taking a piece of wood, lighted it, and walked backwards towards the ship, holding the stick in one hand, with the other placed upon his buttocks (he being naked), until the wood which had been piled under the ship was ignited. Then the others came up with staves and firewood, each one carrying a stick already lighted at the upper end, and threw it all on the pyre. The pile was soon aflame, then the ship, finally the tent, the man, and the girl, and everything else in the ship. A terrible storm began to blow up, and this intensified the flames, and gave wings to the blaze.

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Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 4:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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When the going got tough . . .

After the Russian debacle Napoleon, fearing his position at home was precarious, left the French army in the lurch and hurried back to France almost unaccompanied. Arriving at the banks of the river Neman in his miserable sleigh, he inquired of the ferryman whether many deserters had come through that day. “No,” replied the Russian, “you are the first.”

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Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 11:44 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Fern Hill and the Legend

First the legend of Fern Hill.

Fern Hill

It seems that around the turn of the century, years before Dylan Thomas spent summers there, Fern Hill was owned by a wealthy family. The assistant hangman of a nearby town married into the family and lived at Fern Hill with his new wife and daughter. When the daughter was three years old, however, the hangman’s wife died, and she left everything to her daughter when the daughter came of age.

The assistant hangman and his daughter lived together at Fern Hill for years, until the day of her eighteenth birthday. It was then that the father barred the windows with iron, and it was then that he locked her in the house to prevent her from marrying and thus “stealing away” his fortune. He built a stone vault that leaned up beside the house—a clausterphobic fortress you can still see in the middle of the photograph. And in that vault he left her.

And one night her love came to the house and was able to bend a bar or two, and the couple disappeared and were never heard from again. And the next morning, true to his vocation, the assistant hangman hanged himself in the basement….

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Fern Hill

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

—Dylan Thomas

Recited by the Poet Dylan Thomas

Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 11:22 AM  Leave a Comment  
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