Friday July 7, 2017

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The far court opens for us all July.
Your arm, flung up like an easy sail bellying,
comes down on the serve in a blue piece of sky
barely within reach, and you following
tip forward on the smash. The sun sits still
on the hard white linen lip of the net. Five-love.
Salt runs behind my ears at thirty-all.
At game I see the sweat that you’re made of
We improve each other, quickening so by noon
that the white game moves itself, the universe
contracted to the edge of the dividing line
you toe against, limbering for your service,
arm up, swiping the sun time after time,
and the square I live in, measured out with lime.

“Prothalamion” by Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems: 1960-1990. © Norton, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887), who once said, “My art is perhaps a wild art, a blazing quicksilver, a blue soul flashing on my canvases.” He became famous for paintings that tested reality, like I and the Village (1911) and My Fiancée with Black Gloves (1909). Chagall’s world was filled with nymphs, satyrs, birds, and fish playing musical instruments. People were red, horses green, and cows blue.

Chagall was born in Liozna, near the city of Vitebsk (Belarus). Liozna was built mostly of wood; little of it survived the destruction of World War II. Chagall’s father was a fish merchant, and his mother sold goods out of their home. Whenever Chagall featured a fish motif in his later work, he meant it as a sign of respect for his father. When he was 19, he enrolled in an all-Jewish art school and began his formal art education. In St. Petersburg, he enrolled in The Imperial School for the Protection of New Art.

Chagall found himself in Paris, where he quickly became beloved and joined an artist’s colony known as “The Beehive” (La Ruche). The colony was on the very outskirts of Paris, and Chagall befriended artists like Fernand Léger, Modigliani, and the poet Apollinaire.

When he found himself back in St. Petersburg, he avoided military service by accepting a position as a clerk with the Ministry of War Economy. He painted obsessively and wrote his memoir, My Autobiography (1931). He met Bella Rosenfeld, who became his fiancée, but they had to flee the country because of Nazi persecution. In 1941, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City added Chagall’s name to a list of intellectuals and artists deemed most at risk of Nazi persecution. Because of this list, Chagall and more than a thousand other artists were granted visas to come to America. Chagall and Rosenfeld lived in an apartment off Fifth Avenue for several years. He never quite acclimated to New York City, calling the city “this Babylon,” and he never learned English fluently. In Europe, his work was scrubbed from museums by the Nazi party and often burned.

When Bella died suddenly, he stopped painting for nine months. He said, “All dressed in white or all in black, she has long floated across my canvases, guiding my art. I finish neither painting nor engraving without asking her ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”

If you are in New York City, you can see Marc Chagall’s work at the United Nations headquarters. He designed the magnificent stained glass window, called “The Peace Window.” He was also adept at etching, illustrating an edition of Gogol’s novel Dead Souls and spending more than 20 years on 105 plates for an edition of the Bible that was eventually published in 1956. In Chagall’s world, there are no haloes on angels.

Marc Chagall worked in a variety of mediums over his lifetime: clay, oils, pastels, glass, gouache, and etching. He liked to say, “I work in whatever medium likes me at the moment.”

Today is the birthday of drummer Ringo Starr, born in Liverpool, England (1940). He is known as the “easy-going Beatle.” His genial quality proved to be a steady background to the moodiness of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and George Harrison, his bandmates in the most famous band in the world, the Beatles.

Ringo Starr was born Richard Starkey. His father left the family early on, and his mother worked as a barmaid to support herself and her son, who was often seriously ill. As a child, he’d been hospitalized for appendicitis and peritonitis, even falling into a coma that lasted for days. He lost so much school time that he couldn’t read until he was eight years old. At one point, he was in a sanitorium for two years. The staff tried to keep the patients happy by giving them instruments to form a hospital band, and Richard Starkey was given a kind of mallet made from a cotton bobbin and he used it to bang on the medicine cabinets—he was hooked.

When he was 15, he got a job as an apprentice in a Liverpool equipment factory and working for the British Rail. He also discovered the skiffle craze that swept Britain in the late 1950s. Kids made their own musical instruments and played songs that were a blend of blues and ska. He played in a band called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and changed his name to Ringo, because of all the rings he wore, and Starr, because he felt it reflected his love for country and western music.

Ringo Starr was 19 and seriously considering moving to Houston, Texas, to be nearer to his musical idol, the blue musician Lightnin’ Hopkins, when he was asked to join a popular local band called the Beatles. He replaced a drummer named Pete Best, and the band’s female fans were so distraught they followed the band from town to town, crying, “Pete forever! Ringo never!” They even gave George Harrison a black eye during a scuffle after a concert.

When the Beatles came to the United States on February 7, 1964, they set off a craze that lasted for the entire 1960s. Starr says, “I lived in a nightclub for three years. It used to be a nonstop party.” In 1970, Paul McCartney quit the band. Ringo Starr went on to a solo career, earning seven Top 10 hits from 1971 to 1975. His latest solo album is Postcards from Paradise (2015).

It’s the birthday of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri (1907). He wrote over 50 novels and collections of short stories over a span of four decades. He’s best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), a cult classic about a boy who is born during the first manned mission to Mars. He’s raised by Martians, then returns to Earth, starts a church, and preaches free love.

Heinlein began writing in the mid-1930s, while he was recovering from an accident from his days in the Navy. He started out writing novels for young adults, but they were so advanced that they were usually published outside the U.S. as novels for adults. Heinlein once said, “Kids want tough books, chewy books — not pap.”

He called his books “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction,” in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. He tried to write about events that could actually happen, taking into consideration everything we know about the natural laws of the universe. He wrote about things like atomic bombs, cloning, and gay marriage years before they became realities. Not all of his predictions came true, though. In 1952, he wrote an article called “Life in 2000 A.D.,” in which he predicted that we would have cures for cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay; there would be men who had visited all parts of the solar system; and new technology would make all existing houses obsolete.

Heinlein said: “Being intelligent is not a felony. But most societies evaluate it as at least a misdemeanor.”

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