Wednesday Apr. 5, 2017

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The Same River

Yes, yes, you can’t step into the same
river twice, but all the same, this river
is one of the things that has changed
least in my life, and stepping into it
always feels like returning to something
far back and familiar, its steady current
of coppery water flowing around my calves
and then my thighs, my only waders
a pair of old shorts. Holding a fly rod
above my head, my other arm out
for balance, like some kind of dance,
trying not to slip on the mossy rocks,
I make my way out to the big rock
I want to fish from, mottled with lichen
that has dried to rusty orange, a small
midstream island that a philosopher
might use to represent stasis
versus flux, being amidst becoming,
in some argument that is larger
than any that interests me now
as I climb out dripping onto the boulder
and cast my line out to where the bubbles
form a channel and trail off in a V
that points to where the fish might be,
holding steady amid the river’s flow.

“The Same River” by Jeffrey Harrison from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (books by this author), born in London (1837). He was just over five feet tall. His cousin wrote about him during their school days: “He was strangely tiny. His limbs were small and delicate; and his sloping shoulders looked far too weak to carry his great head, the size of which was exaggerated by the tousled mass of red hair standing almost at right angles to it. Hero-worshippers talk of his hair as having been a ‘golden aureole.’ At that time there was nothing golden about it. Red, violent, aggressive red it was, unmistakable, unpoetical carrots.” Swinburne liked Eton, where he was known as “mad Swinburne,” and he hated Oxford. But it was there that he befriended the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who called him “my little Northumbrian friend.” As roommates, they kept a pet wombat and got drunk together frequently. Swinburne was famous for his outrageous personality—extremely melodramatic, he liked to slide naked down banisters, and he would literally skip around a room, shrieking his poetry at the top of his lungs. Oscar Wilde called him “a braggart in matters of vice.” But he was a popular and respected poet in his own right. His books include Atalanta in Calydon (1865), Poems and Ballads I (1866), and Tristram of Lyonesse (1882).  

Today is the birthday of novelist Arthur Hailey (books by this author), born in Luton, Bedfordshire, England (1920). He is best known for sprawling novels like Hotel (1965) and Airport (1968). Hailey followed a simple formula: use an industry, like hospitality or aviation, as the backdrop for fast-paced, steamy, and sometimes violent stories inhabited by greedy, striving, or lovelorn characters. Hailey wrote 11 novels during his lifetime; most were international best-sellers, very few were under 500 pages, and while readers ate up everything he wrote, critics could sometimes be less than kind. One reviewer famously wrote, “This is not a book you cannot put down; it is a book you can hardly hold up.”

Pocahontas married John Rolfe on this date in 1614.

Most of what we know of Pocahontas comes from other people’s accounts. She was born about 1596, and she was the daughter of Wahunsenaca, who was known to the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, as Chief Powhatan. Her real name was Matoaka; “Pocahontas” was a nickname that meant “playful one.” As the daughter of the chief, she would have had privileged status, but would nevertheless have learned women’s work: building and furnishing the houses, dressing game, planting and harvesting crops, tending the fires, and gathering edible plants. When she was about 11 or 12, her brother captured a European explorer named John Smith, and this was her first encounter with the English colonists. A story is told that Smith was about to be executed by Powhatan’s men, but Pocahontas rushed in and threw herself between Smith and the others. That’s Smith’s version, anyway; another version is that he was about to be initiated into the community, and that his life was never in danger, even though he believed it was. Either way, Smith was allowed to go back to Jamestown, and Pocahontas usually went along whenever emissaries brought gifts of food to the English. But the relationship between the Native Americans and the English deteriorated when the colonists started demanding more and more food, and eventually Pocahontas was not allowed to visit Jamestown anymore.

John Rolfe was born in Norfolk, England, in about 1585. We don’t know much about his early life, either. At that time, Spain and England were at war. Spain had a monopoly on tobacco, which they grew in their North American colonies and sold in Europe. Rolfe had gotten his hands on some tobacco seeds from Trinidad, and he and some other businessmen hoped to introduce the crop into Virginia and undercut Spain’s trade. Rolfe and his wife, Sarah, set sail on the Sea Venture in June 1609, bound for the new colony of Jamestown. The fleet ran into a hurricane, and the Sea Venture was forced to run aground in Bermuda. The passengers and crew all survived, but they were stuck in Bermuda for 10 months while they built new ships to take them to Virginia. Sarah Rolfe gave birth to a baby girl in Bermuda, but the infant died. Sarah would also die in Bermuda. Rolfe eventually made his way to Virginia to carry on with his tobacco scheme. He arrived at Jamestown in May 1610 to find the colony struggling to survive.

In 1613, the English kidnapped Pocahontas, intending to exchange her for English prisoners being held by Powhatan. During her captivity, Pocahontas was given lessons in the English language and religion. She eventually converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca. She also met John Rolfe, who was 10 years her senior. They fell in love, and sought permission from Powhatan to marry. He gave his consent, and Rolfe wrote to Governor Thomas Dale to obtain the permission of the English. “It is Pocahontas,” he wrote, “to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I (could not) unwind myself thereout.” Their wedding brought about a shaky truce — called the Peace of Pocahontas — between their two communities. The Virginia Company of London decided to use the marriage as an advertisement for the colony, so they paid passage for John, Pocahontas, and their infant son, Thomas, back to England. The Rolfes toured England and were presented at court, and Pocahontas was reunited with John Smith, whom she hadn’t seen in years.

In 1617, the Rolfes were preparing to return home to Jamestown. On the eve of their journey, Pocahontas became extremely ill. She died in an inn in Gravesend, and was buried in England. Rolfe left their son, Thomas, behind to be educated in England. Eventually, Thomas returned to Jamestown, but he and John Rolfe never saw each other again.

It’s the birthday of American pediatrician and microbiologist Hattie Alexander was born in Baltimore (1901). Alexander would go on to develop a new serum to effectively treat the deadly childhood illness influenzal meningitis, also known as Hib.

Alexander attended medical school at Johns Hopkins University in her hometown. In 1932, she was appointed as lifelong instructor and researcher in pediatrics at Columbia University in New York.

Her work focused on developing a better serum for curing influenzal meningitis, which killed virtually all the infants and young children that it infected. She experimented with rabbit-based serums to great success, and by the mid-1940s she had virtually erased infant mortality from the disease. She was also one of the first microbiologists to study antibiotic resistance, which remains a major problem today. In 1964, she became one of the first women selected to lead a national medical organization as president of the American Pediatric Society.

Her Columbia colleagues characterized her as a brilliant scientist who always demanded high standard of proof from her students and residents, constantly challenging, “How do you know that?” “What makes you think so?” and “Where is your evidence?”

Alexander died in 1968 of breast cancer, at 67 years old. After her death, scientists developed a Hib vaccine — bringing cases of influenzal meningitis down to only two in every 100,000 children.

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