On the evening you were born,
after the tremendous churning
that brought you forth, an owl
flew onto the rail of the balcony
where we sat, as darkness bled
from backlit hills into the sky.
In twilight, she perched on the ledge
measured us with wide, light-
gleaning eyes, then sailed off
on soft wings. Shades of my mother,
I thought, half-believing—the wide-
set eyes and level gaze.
For those who say the dead
have no more truck with us
are wrong. The dead are all around us
feathering the air with their wings.
They see in the fertile darkness
that surrounds this sac of light.
And in these hours we call them back
to steady us, who live in time.
“With Their Wings” by Jean Nordhaus from Memos from the Broken World. © Mayapple Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
In 1581, he published his most famous work, La Gerusalemme liberata, or Jerusalem Delivered, an epic poem about the Crusades. It was hugely popular across Europe, even as Tasso suffered from what is now thought to be schizophrenia — he was suspicious of everyone around him, and lashed out at friends and patrons. He started taking off in secret, traveling incognito around the countryside. He lost all his money and had to move from court to court, trying to get various noblemen to support him. One frustrated benefactor committed him to a madhouse, where he spent seven years. Despite his mental illness, Tasso continued writing love sonnets, plays, and epic and religious poems, and he was proclaimed poet laureate by the pope — but he died just days before he was to be crowned.
It was on this day in 1818 that Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was published (books by this author).
Two years before she had spent the summer in a cabin on Lake Geneva with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her sister Claire, and Claire's lover, the poet Lord Byron. It rained a lot that summer, and one night, Byron suggested they all write ghost stories. At first Mary had trouble coming up with a story, but while lying in bed, claimed to have a waking nightmare, seeing a vision of a man reanimating a creature. She wrote: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion." So she set to work on Frankenstein.
It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats (books by this author), born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn (1916). The son of impoverished Jewish immigrants from Warsaw, he wanted to be an artist, and that worried his family — but he couldn't afford art school, so he got a job painting murals for the Works Progress Administration, and designed army camouflage during World War II.
Keats had no intention of illustrating children's books, much less writing them. He began to publish illustrations in magazines like Playboy and Reader's Digest. But one children's author saw his work and asked him to illustrate her book. The first book he wrote and illustrated on his own was The Snowy Day (1962), done all in collage, about a young black boy named Peter playing in his neighborhood after a new snowfall. It was one of the first children's books to feature a black character. He went on to illustrate more than 80 children's books, and to write and illustrate more than 20 books.
He said, "I love city life. All the beauty that other people see in country life, I find taking walks and seeing the multitudes of people."
It was on this day in 1918 that the first cases of what would become the influenza pandemic were reported in the U.S. when 107 soldiers got sick at Fort Riley, Kansas.
It was the worst pandemic in world history. The flu that year killed only 2.5 percent of its victims, but more than a fifth of the world's entire population caught it — it's estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died in just a few months. Historians believe at least 500,000 people died in the United States alone.