Sunday Mar. 13, 2016

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Lois Maguire’s Hair

If yours was the desk
behind hers
you could watch
all through arithmetic
Lois twisting one
of those golden curls
around her finger
see it spring back
to join the tight others
that her mother
must have pinned up
on Sunday nights
since all week
they grew looser
although still beautiful
and despite your
terrible envy
you could feel that curl
become your own thought
that drew out
was reshaped
so you sat up straight
with the answer

“Lois Maguire’s Hair” by Susan Donnelly from Sweet Gooseberries. © Every Other Thursday Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. Available from the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (buy now)

On this date in 2003, the journal Nature reported the discovery of 350,000-year-old fossilized human footprints in Italy. The Italian footprints reported in Nature are about eight inches long and four inches wide, and their makers were probably no taller than five feet.

Thousands of people reported mysterious lights over Arizona on this date in 1997.

It began around 8:00 p.m., when a man in Henderson, Nevada, saw a V-shaped object "the size of a 747," with six lights on its leading edge. The lights moved from northwest to southeast; over the course of the next hour, sightings were reported throughout Arizona, as far south as Tucson — a distance of nearly 400 miles. One cement truck driver reported that the lights hovered over Phoenix for more than two hours, and said: "I'll never be the same. Before this, if anybody had told me they saw a UFO, I would've said, 'Yeah and I believe in the Tooth Fairy.' Now I've got a whole new view and I may be just a dumb truck driver, but I've seen something that don't belong here."

Today is the birthday of American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855). Percival Lowell studied mathematics and history at Harvard, and he went to work in the family's textile conglomerate. He wasn't happy in Boston, though; he spent a good deal of time traveling, especially in the Orient, and writing about his travels. In the 1890s, he became fascinated with Mars; astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on the red planet. Lowell decided to devote his fortunes to studying Mars, believing that the canals offered proof of intelligent life, and so he built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Even though scientists remained skeptical, Lowell's vision of intelligent life on Mars captivated the public and had a huge impact on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

It's the birthday of George Seferis (books by this author), born Giorgos Seferiades in Smyrna, Asia Minor (1900). In addition to a long and successful diplomatic career, Seferis was a celebrated Greek poet, writer, and translator, who was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in literature. His lyrical, narrative poetry, collected in Mythistorema (Mythical Narrative) (1935), Tetradio Gymnasmaton (Book of Exercises) (1940), and a series of Emerologio Katastromatos (Logbooks), encompassed the great history of Greece as well as its mythical literary legacy.

It was on this day in 1891 that Henrik Ibsen's play Ghosts opened on the London stage (books by this author). Ghosts was considered a controversial play because it included content about incest and sexually transmitted diseases, and Ibsen refused to give his audiences the happy endings they were used to. When it premiered in London, the play had already been banned in St. Petersburg on religious grounds.

Henrik Ibsen predicted the public's negative reaction to Ghosts. He wrote in 1882: "It may well be that the play is in several respects rather daring. But it seemed to me that the time had come for moving some boundary-posts. And this was an undertaking for which a man of the older generation, like myself, was better fitted for than the many younger authors who might desire to do something of the kind. I was prepared for a storm; but such storms one must not shrink from encountering."

Henrik Ibsen wrote in Act 2: "I almost think we're all of us Ghosts ... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."

It's the birthday of journalist Janet Flanner (books by this author), born in Indianapolis (1892). Her first "Letter from Paris" appeared in The New Yorker in October of 1925, and she continued writing it for 50 years. It became a biweekly feature of the magazine in which she wrote about how public political news affected private lives. Without telling her, editor Harold Ross gave Flanner the penname Genêt, which he thought was the French name for Janet, but is actually a variant of the French word for female donkey.

She wrote slowly and painstakingly, spending four of five full 12-hour days on a 2,500-word letter. She said: "I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat and flatter it." Her letters were witty, elegant, and humorous, which suited well the New Yorker style. She also wrote many profiles, including ones of Hitler, Queen Mary of England, Isadora Duncan, Matisse, Picasso, Edith Wharton, and Dr. Thomas Mann, many of which were collected in An American in Paris: Profile of an Interlude Between Two Wars (1940). She wrote one novel, Cubical City (1926), published a few books of essays — including London Was Yesterday (1975) — and translated several French books into English.

She said, "I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks."

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