Monday Apr. 6, 2015

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In the Morning in Morocco

there are song birds singing
and roosters crowing,
dogs barking and a pneumatic drill
being used on the sidewalk below,
and I wake remembering
these things from Omaha
as if the sound of the sea,
of the gulls were from Omaha, too,
wake wondering that I have traveled
so far to find
dream and reality and dream
just touching at seams
like the panels of heavy curtains
at the window touching,
letting in this bright light
along the edges.

“In the Morning in Morocco” by Mary K. Stillwell from Maps and Destinations. © Stephen F. Austin Sate University Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It was on this day in 1327 that the Italian sonneteer Petrarch (books by this author) first saw his beloved Laura, during a Holy Week service at the Church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon. No one has ever been able to prove whether or not Laura really existed, but she was probably Laure de Noves, a noblewoman living in Avignon with her husband Hugues de Sade.

Petrarch was 22 years old, and she was a teenager, maybe 17. He fell instantly in love. He wrote: "It was the day when the sun's heavy rays / Grew pale in pity of his suffering Lord / When I fell captive, lady, to the gaze / Of your fair eyes, fast bound in love's strong cord." Given the content of his poetry, it seems likely that the two never had an affair, but for the rest of his life he idealized her and wrote sonnets about her beauty and purity.

It’s the birthday of the Italian painter and architect Raphael, born Raffaello Sanzio in Urbino, Italy (1483). His father, Giovanni, was a painter and poet, but died when Raphael was 11. He was then sent to be an apprentice to his father’s friend, the painter Perugino. From 1504 to 1508, he spent most of his time in Florence where he eventually met Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Fra Bartolommeo. His works were greatly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, in particular Leonardo’s Madonna and Child with St. Anne paintings. He adopted Leonardo’s use of chiaroscuro and sfumato, but went beyond Leonardo by creating figures with round, gentle faces that seemed uncomplicated and that were raised to sublime perfection and serenity.His works from this period focused mainly on the Madonna, and in his lifetime, he produced more than 300 paintings based on the Madonna theme, including his famous The Sistine Madonna, figuring the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.

In 1508, Pope Julius II, at the suggestion of the architect Donato Bramante, invited the little-known artist Raphael to Rome, and the pope became impressed by the young artist’s growing talents as well as his handsome appearance and personal charm. After Julius II’s death, Leo X invited Raphael to work with Bramante to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Following the death of his fellow architect, Raphael was made head of the project. Leo X also commissioned Raphael to make full-scale figures for 10 tapestries that were woven for the Sistine Chapel. Raphael’s popularity continued to grow while in Rome, and he was eventually dubbed “the prince of painters.”

On this day in 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. President Woodrow Wilson tried to keep the U.S. out of the war, even after a German U-boat sunk the passenger ship Lusitania, until British intelligence intercepted a secret German communication to Mexico. Apparently, Germany had promised Mexico that they could have the U.S. if Mexico would support the German cause.

It’s the birthday of country music singer Merle Haggard, born near Bakersfield, California (1937). It was the height of the Depression, and his parents had moved from Oklahoma to California to look for work. Haggard grew up in Oildale, a makeshift town of migrant workers on the outskirts of Bakersfield, living in a boxcar that his family had converted into a house.

He inherited his musical talent from his father, who had played fiddle and guitar but given it up before his son was born. Haggard’s father died when he was nine years old, and he began to rebel: hopping freight trains, skipping school, and stealing things. Around the same time, he taught himself guitar by listening to records. He began to earn some money from his music, but throughout his teen years he was in and out of prison. In 1958, he attempted to escape from a county jail and ended up in San Quentin Prison. He and another inmate there, a man nicknamed Rabbit, planned out an escape, but in the end Rabbit told Haggard not to risk it because he had a chance to make a living from his music. Rabbit ended up caught and executed, and Haggard decided it was time to get his life back on track.

He joined the prison band, and was further inspired to pursue a music career after Johnny Cash came and played a concert at San Quentin. Haggard said: “He had the right attitude: he chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us.” Haggard got out of prison and went on to become a great singer and songwriter, with 38 No. 1 hits and 250 original songs, including “Mama Tried,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “Branded Man,” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”

It’s the birthday of the molecular biologist James Dewey Watson, born in Chicago (1928). When he was 15, he won a scholarship to the University of Chicago; he studied zoology there and also at Indiana University, where he earned his doctorate. He crossed the Atlantic after that and worked in Copenhagen and Naples before moving to Cambridge University.

He met Francis Crick at Cambridge, and the two became colleagues and friends. Together, they discovered the molecular structure of DNA: a double helix, which looked like a twisted ladder. This model also enabled them to explain how DNA could replicate itself. The two men published their findings in the journal Nature in 1953. Watson, along with Crick and Maurice Wilkins, won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. By rights, they should have been joined by Rosalind Franklin; it was her unpublished data that had been the springboard to their discovery. Unfortunately, she had died of ovarian cancer four years before the prize was awarded.

Watson moved back to the United States not long after he and Crick published their DNA findings. From 1988 to 1992, he served as one of the directors of the Human Genome Project. The National Institutes of Health began the project to map the entire human gene sequence. Watson’s genome was sequenced and published by the project in 2007. That same year, Watson published his memoir: Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science (2007).

It's the birthday of critic, novelist, and short-story writer Robert Coates (books by this author), born in New Haven, Connecticut (1897). He worked as a journalist and wrote pamphlets for the American Rubber Company, but he didn't like it very much. So in 1921, he left the United States and went to Paris and became part of the circle of American expatriates there. Gertrude Stein helped him publish his experimental first novel, The Eater of Darkness (1926), and Coates introduced her to Hemingway. After a while he moved back to the United States and got a job with the recently launched New Yorker, writing short stories and book reviews and serving as the magazine's art critic for 30 years. It was in the pages of The New Yorker that Coates coined the term "abstract expressionism."

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