Wednesday Oct. 7, 2015

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Along with his two surviving sisters, the five of us
divided up the week, so that one of us would call
my father every night at dinnertime. My night
was Wednesday, and after we discussed the weather,
and he expressed amazement that New Hampshire
could have record-breaking rains while Maryland
clung stubbornly to drought, he’d ask if I had spoken
with my daughter lately. I’d say No, that it had been
a month, or that I’d left a message and she hadn’t
called me back, and he’d say what a shame that was,
he didn’t understand how silence could descend
between a parent and a child. With that, he’d reach
across the kitchen table with his knotted fingers
for her latest postcard, then for his magnifying glass.
I marveled at the torrent of her sentences,
when her communications with me were so sere
and brief. When he was done, I’d say, “I’ll talk
to you again next week,” to which he responded
cheerfully, right up until the end, “I hope so.”

"Wednesdays” by Sue Ellen Thompson from They. © Turning Point Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of poet and author Diane Ackerman (books by this author), born Diane Fink in Waukegan, Illinois (1948) (books by this author). She has a knack for blending science and literary art; she wrote her first book of poetry entirely about astronomy. It was called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral, and it was published in 1976, while she was working on her doctorate at Cornell. Carl Sagan served as a technical advisor for the book, and he was also on her dissertation committee. Her most widely read book is 1990's A Natural History of the Senses, which inspired a five-part Nova miniseries, Mystery of the Senses, which she hosted. She even has a molecule named after her: dianeackerone.

In 1970, she married novelist and poet Paul West. They shared a playful obsession with words that was central to their expressions of love for each other. In 2005, Paul suffered a stroke and, as Ackerman wrote, "In the cruelest of ironies for a man whose life revolved around words, with one of the largest working English vocabularies on earth, he had suffered immense damage to the key language areas of his brain and could no longer process language in any form." His vast vocabulary was reduced to a single syllable: mem.

Even when he recovered the ability to speak, his brain kept substituting wrong words for the right ones, but she encouraged him not to fight his brain, but to just go with it, to say what it was giving him to say. As a result, the hundred little pet names he used to have for her before the stroke have been replaced with non-sequiturs like "my little spice owl," "my little bucket of hair," and "blithe sickness of Araby." Ackerman wrote about the stroke and Paul's journey back to language in her most recent memoir, One Hundred Names for Love (2011).

Diane Ackerman wrote, "It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between."

Today is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr, born in Copenhagen (1885). Bohr theorized that atoms were composed of a small, dense nucleus that is orbited by electrons at a fixed distance from the nucleus. He also came up with the revolutionary principle of complementarity: that things like light or electrons can have a dual nature — as a particle and a wave, for example — but we can only experience one aspect of their nature at a time.

Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on this date in 1955 (books by this author). The reading was intended to promote the new gallery. The poet Kenneth Rexroth organized the reading, and in preparation, he introduced Gary Snyder to Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg introduced everyone to Jack Kerouac, and they became the core of the group of writers known as the Beats.

Ginsberg was the second to the last to read, and he started at about 11 p.m. He was 29 years old, and he had never participated in a poetry reading before. He started off in a quiet voice. But as he read, he found his rhythm, and he took a deep breath before each of the long lines in "Howl" and then said each line in one breath. Jack Kerouac chanted "Go, go, go" in rhythm while Ginsberg read, and the audience went wild.

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