Thursday July 20, 2017

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The Drink

I am always interested in the people in films who have just had a drink
thrown in their faces. Sometimes they react with uncontrollable rage,
but sometimes—my favorites—they do not change their expressions at
all. Instead they raise a handkerchief or napkin and calmly dab at the
offending liquid, as the hurler jumps to her feet and storms away. The
other people at the table are understandably uncomfortable. A woman
leans over and places her hand on the sleeve of the man’s jacket and
says, “David, you know she didn’t mean it.” David answers, “Yes,” but
in an ambiguous tone—the perfect adult response. But now the orchestra
has resumed its amiable and lively dance music, and the room is set in
motion as before. Out in the parking lot, however, Elizabeth is setting
fire to David’s car. Yes, this is a contemporary film.

“The Drink” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Italian humanist, scholar, and poet Francesco Petrarca (books by this author), better known as Petrarch, born in Arezzo, Italy (1304). He's usually considered to have lived just before the Italian Renaissance movement in art and literature began, but he was one of the most important influences on Renaissance artists and writers. More than anyone else from his age, he advocated for the restoration of classical Roman literature and politics. He read Cicero and Virgil obsessively, and he spent his adolescence traveling through Europe in search of old Latin manuscripts. His father became so fed up with his interest in Roman literature that he threw all of his books by Latin authors into a fire. In 1347, Petrarch supported a failed attempt to establish an ancient Roman-style republic.

He wrote epic poems in Latin that he hoped would make him famous—and they did: in 1341 he was crowned Poet Laureate of Rome. It had been hundreds of years since Roman officials had given anyone that title, and in his acceptance speech Petrarch gave what some historians call "the first manifesto of the Renaissance," about the revival of interest in classical culture.

By the end of his life, Petrarch was one of the most famous men in Europe. People made pilgrimages from all over southern Italy and France to see him. When he stopped off in Arezzo on the way from Rome to Padua, he was invited to visit the house of his birth, which had already been converted to a memorial in his honor.

After Petrarch's death, a book of sonnets was published about a woman named Laura—the Canzoniere (1374), or "Song Book." He wrote the sonnets in his free time during the last forty years of his life. They were the only poems he wrote in Italian, and he didn't consider them very important, but they're what most of us know him by today.

The kind of poems he wrote have come to be known as Petrarchan sonnets, poems of fourteen lines divided by their rhymes into one section of eight lines and one section of six. Thanks in large part to Petrarch, writing sonnets became all the rage in Elizabethan England, when poets like Sir Walter Raleigh, Michael Drayton and, most famously, William Shakespeare composed sonnet sequences.

Petrarch wrote:
"She ruled in beauty o'er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine."

On this day in 1869, Innocents Abroad was published, firmly establishing its author, Mark Twain (books by this author), as a serious writer. The book, Twain's second, was an outgrowth of an assignment from a California newspaper, which had sent him around the world to write travel sketches. It remained his best-selling book throughout his lifetime.

It was on this day in 1875 that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. It was a swarm about 1,800 miles long, 110 miles wide, from Canada down to Texas. North America was home to the most numerous species of locust on earth, the Rocky Mountain locust. At the height of their population, their total mass was equivalent to the 60 million bison that had inhabited the West. The Rocky Mountain locust is believed to have been the most common macroscopic creature of any kind ever to inhabit the planet.

Swarms would occur once every seven to 12 years, emerging from river valleys in the Rockies, sweeping east across the country. The size of the swarms tended to grow when there was less rain — and the West had been going through a drought since 1873. Farmers just east of the Rockies began to see a cloud approaching from the west. It was glinting around the edges where the locust wings caught the light of the sun.
People said the locusts descended like a driving snow in winter. They covered everything in their path. They sounded like thunder or a train and blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. Trees bent over with the weight of them. They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path. They ate harnesses off horses and the bark of trees, curtains, clothing that was hung out on laundry lines. They chewed on the handles of farm tools and fence posts and railings. Some farmers tried to scare away the locusts by running into the swarm, and they had their clothes eaten right off their bodies.

Similar swarms occurred in the following years. The farmers became desperate. But by the mid-1880s, the rains had returned, and the swarms died down. Within a few decades, the Rocky Mountain locusts were believed to be extinct. The last two live specimens were collected in 1902, and they're now stored at the Smithsonian.

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