Wednesday Oct. 12, 2016

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The Radiation Waiting Room

They bring us to this pastel room,
          point to the lockers,
          point to the dressing rooms.
It could almost be a gym,
          only there’s a wheelchair, there’s Health News,
          there’s a complicated flower jigsaw puzzle,
          there are romance novels to borrow
          in case you will be returning often.
We change into gowns that tie in the back;
          some of us get to keep on our shirts,
          some our pants;
          we all wear shoes.
Those of us who have come so often
          wait comfortably,
          take care of the new ones,
          offer answers, directions, suggestions.
Only we are careful not to say
          how long we’ve been coming
          or what we have or
          what they’ve done
          or are about to do.

“The Radiation Waiting Room” by Susan Herron Sibbet from Great Blue. © Sixteen Rivers Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

The first Oktoberfest had its origins in Munich on this date in 1810. The occasion was a royal wedding: Ludwig, Crown Prince of Bavaria, was marrying Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, and the royal couple wanted to invite all of Munich to their wedding reception. They threw a parade and a huge party in the field outside the city gates, culminating in a horse race. The citizens of Munich had such a good time that they decided to repeat the horse races at the same time the following year.

On the first anniversary of the royal wedding, the organizers added an agricultural show, to bring attention to the Bavarian farming industry. The horse races are no longer held these days, but the agricultural show remains a big part of Oktoberfest in Bavaria. Over the years, attractions have been added to the celebration: in 1818, organizers brought in a carousel and a couple of swings. They also set up a few modest beer stands. By the end of the century, the little stands had been replaced by huge beer tents and halls, sponsored by German breweries, and the carousel had grown into a full-fledged fair. In 1885, the beer tents were lit with electric lights for the first time.

The Oktoberfest was canceled on a few notable occasions during the 19th century — usually because of war or cholera. In 1933, the swastika replaced the flag of Bavaria, and the festival was canceled for the duration of World War II. And in 1980, a bomb planted in a trash can by a right-wing extremist killed 13 people and wounded more than 200.

Today, the Bavarian Oktoberfest is the largest festival in the world. It draws some 6 million thirsty visitors, who quaff more than a million gallons of beer. Contrary to its name, the celebration begins on the third weekend in September, and runs through the first Sunday in October.

On this day in 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great led his Persian Army into Babylon and defeated the Babylonians, declaring himself ruler of a region that today includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Cyrus was a master military strategist and crafted a careful plan during the Battle of Opis: he and his men diverted the Euphrates River into a canal, which lowered the water-level to the height of their thighs. This allowed them to march directly through the riverbed under cover of night, surprising the Babylonian army. The history of the battle was recorded on clay tablets known as the Nabonidus Chronicle, though scholars differ on how brutal or peaceful the attack actually was.

On this day in 1823, Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh sold the first raincoat. Macintosh had been trying to find uses for the waste products of gasworks when he discovered that a substance called coal-tar naphtha dissolved India rubber — basically, bonding melted rubber to wool, which created a waterproof fabric. The first raincoats smelled bad, stiffened in cold weather, and gummed up in hot weather, but farmers, fishermen, and firemen loved them. They became so beloved in Great Britain that when referring to a raincoat, people simply asked for a “Mac” or a “Mack.” Mackintosh raincoats are still made today.

It’s the birthday of American poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald (1910) (books by this author), born Robert Stuart Fitzgerald in Springfield, Illinois. He’s best known for his English translations of Homer’s The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad (1974), which are still held as the standard works for scholars and students.

Fitzgerald went to Harvard University and read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which he said changed his life. Later, he met Eliot in London and worked up the courage to give him one of his poems. Eliot studied the poem for several minutes and then looked up and said, “Is this the best you can do?”

After graduation (1933), he kicked around as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, worked for Time Magazine, and began publishing his own collections of poetry, including Poems (1935) and A Wreath for the Sea (1943). During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy in Guam and Pearl Harbor. The books in his footlocker included the works of Virgil and a Latin dictionary. He had no formal training in translation, but when he had free time, he would practice translating the Virgil in a little notebook, line by line.

After the war, Fitzgerald was living in Connecticut, teaching, and wondering what he could do to supplement his income with a growing family. He realized that in Europe, the cost of living and domestic help were much cheaper than in America, so he convinced an editor to give him $3000.00 for five years to translate Homer’s epic The Odyssey. He also won a Guggenheim. He spent the next decade living frugally in Italy with his family. They had no telephone, no refrigerator, and no car. He spent every day writing out the Greek in a ledger-type notebook, with each line of Greek followed by two blank lines, which he would use for his translation. He kept a dictionary on hand.

On translating poetry from one language to another, Robert Fitzgerald said, “I think that one poet is lending himself to the other poet, that the obligation is to the other poet, and that one is taking on for the time being the spirit and impulse and intent of the other poet, and so the wish is to make all that clear in one’s own language rather than express oneself, so to speak.”

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