Sunday Dec. 27, 2015

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My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance

Panic in your face, you write questions
to ask him. When he arrives,
you are serene, your fear
unbetrayed. How unlike me you are.

After the dance,
I see your happiness; he holds
your hand. Though you barely speak,
your body pulses messages I can read

all too well. He kisses you goodnight,
his body moving toward yours, and yours
responding. I am frightened, guard my
tongue for fear my mother will pop out

of my mouth. “He is not shy.” You giggle,
a little girl again, but you tell me he
kissed you on the dance floor. “Once?”
I ask. “No, a lot.”

We ride through the rain-shining 1 A.M.
streets. I bite back words which long
to be said, knowing I must not shatter your
moment, fragile as a spun-glass bird,

you, the moment, poised on the edge of
flight, and I, on the ground, afraid.

“My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan from What We Pass On: New and Selected Poems. © Guernica Editions, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1904 that the Abbey Theatre opened in Dublin. It was a permanent space for the Irish Literary Theatre, a company created by a group of writers that included W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. From its beginnings, it was envisioned as a “national theater,” devoted to the Irish nationalist cause; but it was funded by an English woman. Her name was Annie Horniman, and she was a wealthy young theater patron who admired Yeats. She helped sponsor one of his plays in London, and after reading one of Yeats’s essays about the need to revolutionize the theater, she went to Dublin and offered to work for him, essentially as his unpaid secretary. In early 1904, the Irish Literary Theatre staged Yeats’s play The Shadowy Waters, and Yeats gave a passionate speech. Horniman was so moved that she is reported to have said: “I will give you a theater.” She bought a building known as Mechanics’ Hall, which during its history had hosted circuses, lectures, and concerts. She had it rebuilt in grand style, with a balcony, although it was a very small space — it fit fewer than 600 people, and its proscenium was just 18 feet wide. The theater was decorated with stained glass, and Yeats’s brother Jack was commissioned to paint portraits to hang in the halls.

Three one-acts played on opening night at the Abbey: Spreading the News by Lady Gregory, and On Baile’s Strand and Cathleen Ní Houlihan by Yeats. Horniman had designed the costumes, but she was home in England and missed opening night, as did Lady Gregory, who was ill. Although the Abbey started out successfully, by the 1920s the theater was bankrupt. Following the advice of the theater’s founders, the government took it over, making the Abbey the first government-subsidized theater in the English-speaking world.

Yeats wrote: “We hope to find in Ireland an uncorrupted and imaginative audience, trained to listen by its passion for oratory [...] We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and of easy sentiment, as it has been represented, but the home of an ancient idealism.”

It’s the birthday of poet Charles Olson (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1910). He spent summers in Gloucester and later settled there; the fishing town would become central to his poetry.

In the late 1940s, Olson began work on an epic series on the origins of American civilization, set in Gloucester. He called the epic The Maximus Poems. The first volume was published in 1960, and Olson continued to add to the work until his death in 1970. His work was experimental, and rejected any traditional notion of rhyme or meter. He didn’t even consider himself a poet, preferring to call himself an “archeologist of morning.” In his essay, “Projective Verse,” Olson defined a new, open poetic form that is controlled only by the sound and breathing pattern of the voice.

It's the birthday of chemist Louis Pasteur, born in Dole, France (1822). Although he was not a physician, Pasteur was one of the most important medical scientists of the 19th century. He made four important discoveries that changed the modern world. First, he discovered that most infectious diseases are caused by germs, and that instituting sanitary conditions in hospitals could save many lives. Second, he discovered that weakened forms of a germ or microbe could be used as a vaccine to immunize against more virulent forms of the microbe. Third, he discovered that rabies was transmitted by particles so small they could not be seen under a microscope, thus revealing the existence of viruses. And fourth, he developed pasteurization, a process that uses heat to destroy harmful microbes in food products without destroying the food itself.

It’s the birthday of film actress and cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich, born Mary Magdalene Dietrich in Berlin (1901).

She worked in a glove factory and as a chorus girl for traveling vaudeville shows until American director Josef von Sternberg discovered her in 1929. He was entranced by her veneer of sexual sophistication and penchant for self-mockery. He was making a film titled The Blue Angel (1930) and he needed someone to play Lola-Lola, the seductive cabaret singer in a top hat and silk stockings who drives a respected professor mad with desire. They filmed the movie simultaneously in German and English, which meant shooting each scene twice. She became close to von Sternberg, which enraged her costar, Emil Jannings, who felt she was getting preferential treatment. He threatened to strangle her.

The Blue Angel was a worldwide hit. MGM offered Dietrich a two-picture deal if she’d lose 30 pounds, which she did. She made seven more movies with von Sternberg, including Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1933), before the studios said her films cost too much, and that Dietrich was “box office poison.” Dietrich shrugged that off. She’d become appalled by what was happening in her beloved Germany and applied for U.S. Citizenship in 1937. Adolf Hitler approached her and offered millions if she would come back to Berlin. She refused. Hitler banned her films and burned all copies of The Blue Angel, though he kept one for his private collection.

She decided to join the U.S. war effort, recording anti-Nazi broadcasts in German and taking part in war-bond drives. She entertained half a million Allied troops across North Africa and Western Europe. The troops loved her. She slept in dugouts and played a musical saw. Of her war efforts, she said, “This is the only important work I’ve ever done.”

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