Saturday Feb. 14, 2015

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Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

“Valentine” by Carol Ann Duffy, from Mean Time. © Anvil Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission of the author.   (buy now)

Today is Valentine's Day, a big day for greeting card and candy sales, which goes back more than 1,500 years to the Feast of St. Valentine established in the fifth century, though nobody is sure exactly which of the many martyred Valentines it is the feast day of.

The ancient Romans had a fertility festival celebrated at mid-February of every year. The festival was called Lupercalia in honor of Lupa, the wolf who was said to have suckled Romulus and Remus, who went on to found the city of Rome. Lupercalia was a pagan fertility festival celebrated with sacrifices of goats and dogs, with milk and wool and blood. Young men would cut strips from the skins of the goats then strip naked and run through the city in groups, where young women would line up to be spanked with the switches, believing it would improve their fertility. Lupercalia was still wildly popular long after the Roman Empire was officially Christian, and it's not difficult to see why the Church would have wished to have a different sort of holiday take its place.

Chaucer gets credit for establishing St. Valentine's Day as a romantic occasion, when in the 14th-century he wrote in The Parlement of Foules of a spring landscape "on seynt Valentynes day" where the goddess Nature watched as every kind of bird came before her to choose and seduce their mates.

In the early 15th century, the Duke of Orleans wrote a Valentine's poem to his faraway wife while held captive in the Tower of London. Shakespeare mentioned the sending of Valentines in Ophelia's lament in Hamlet. And hundreds of years later, with the advent of cheaper postal services and mass-produced cards, the tradition of sending lacy love notes on the holiday was enormously popular with the Victorians. In 2010, more than 1 billion cards were sent worldwide.

On this day in 1842, the most desirable place to be in New York was at the Valentine's Day "Boz Ball," held in honor of the novelist Charles Dickens (books by this author), who published his early stories under the pseudonym "Boz." He had not yet published most of his most great books: A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849), A Tale of Two Cities (1849), and Great Expectations (1860) were all still to come. But already he was a huge celebrity. Dickens and his wife, Catherine, had arrived in Boston on January 22nd, and the city welcomed them with all sorts of events, until "Boston" was being called "Boz-town." New Yorkers were determined to outdo Boston, so they organized a planning committee. Boston's major Dickens event had been a dinner for men only, so New York decided to give a ball and include women. The ball was at the Park Theater, New York's largest venue, which could hold 3,000 people. Three thousand tickets sold out immediately at $5 apiece, which was quite a bit in those days. Only the most elite society members were welcome — each guest was thoroughly vetted before being allowed to attend. New Yorkers who didn't make it in were trying to spend up to $40 to get a ticket.

The Boz Ball was unprecedented. Thousands of dollars were spent on decorations. There was a bust of Dickens with a bald eagle hanging above it, holding a laurel wreath. There were huge banners, decorated with scenes from his books. There were elaborate displays to represent each state. The New Yorkers were dressed in their finest. People had trouble dancing because there was simply not enough room, but they did it anyway, and the dances alternated with performances from Dickens' books. In a letter to a friend, Dickens called it "the most splendid, gorgeous, brilliant affair you ... can possibly conceive."

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's (books by this author) play The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London. He wrote the first draft in just 21 days, the fastest he'd ever written anything. The play tells the story of a man named Jack Worthing who pretends to have a younger brother named Earnest. Jack uses the imaginary Earnest as an excuse for getting out of all kinds of situations, and even pretends to be Earnest when that suits his purposes. At the same time, Jack's friend Algernon Moncrieff also begins impersonating the imaginary Earnest. When two women fall in love with Jack and Algernon, they both think they are in love with a man named Earnest. It comes out in the end that Jack and Algernon are themselves actually long-lost brothers.

Wilde said that The Importance of Being Earnest expressed his philosophy that "we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality." To a friend he wrote that The Importance of Being Earnest was "a trivial play ... written by a butterfly for butterflies." But it was his greatest success. The actor who played Algernon Moncrieff later said, "In my 53 years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest."

Wilde showed up at a rehearsal for the play a few days before the opening, wearing his trademark green carnation pinned onto a three-piece maroon suit. After watching the actors for a few minutes he said, "Yes, it is quite a good play. I remember I wrote one very like it myself, but it was even more brilliant than this."

It's the birthday of comedian Jack Benny, born Benjamin Kubelsky, in Waukegan, Illinois (1894), the son of a saloonkeeper. A violin prodigy, he hoped for a concert career, but by 17 was playing in vaudeville, where he discovered he was not only musical, but also very funny. His NBC radio program, The Jack Benny Show, began in 1932 and ran weekly for 23 years. His onstage character was a sour, exceedingly stingy person, a remarkably awful violin player, and perpetually 39 years old.

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