Thursday Mar. 31, 2016

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The visible and the in-

Some people move through your life
like the perfume of peonies, heavy
and sensual and lingering.

Some people move through your life
like the sweet musky scent of cosmos
so delicate if you sniff twice, it’s gone.

Some people occupy your life
like moving men who cart off
couches, pianos and break dishes.

Some people touch you so lightly you
are not sure it happened. Others leave
you flat with footprints on your chest.

Some are like those fall warblers
you can’t tell from each other even
though you search Petersen’s.

Some come down hard on you like
a striking falcon and the scars remain
and you are forever wary of the sky.

We all are waiting rooms at bus
stations where hundreds have passed
through unnoticed and others

have almost burned us down
and others have left us clean and new
and others have just moved in.

"The visible and the in-" by Marge Piercy from Made in Detroit. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Marge Piercy (books by this author), born in Detroit (1936). Her grandfather was a union organizer who was murdered while organizing bakery workers. Her grandmother was born in a shtetl in Lithuania, and Piercy grew up sitting in her kitchen and listening to her stories. She grew up working-class and Jewish in an era when anti-Semitism was a constant part of life. She witnessed the Detroit race riots; her first boyfriend was black, and she was beaten up for it; and she lost a friend to heroin when she was a teenager. She said: “I knew so many kinds of people, from a Wyandotte Native American to kids from the projects to kids up from Appalachia to strivers and strainers and gamblers and numbers runners. Detroit formed me.”

When she was 15 years old, her family moved into a larger house, and for the first time she had a room of her own — upstairs, along with two tenants. Now that she had some privacy, she began to write poems and stories. She went on to college — the first person in her family to do so — and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern, then moved to France with her first husband. But the marriage failed, and she returned to Chicago, in a time she remembers as the hardest in her life. She was broke, working part time, and divorced. She submitted her writing over and over, but it was all rejected.

She remarried, and became deeply involved in political work, organizing for women’s liberation and against the Vietnam War. In 1968, she published her first book of poems, Breaking Camp. She had written six novels that had all been rejected, but she continued to write; she finally decided to depart from her feminist point of view and write from a male perspective, and that manuscript was accepted and published as her first novel, Going Down Fast (1969). She said, “You simply couldn’t publish serious fiction about the lives of ordinary women then.”

Piercy was living in New York City, but with her health deteriorating and the anti-war movement consumed by infighting, she moved to Cape Cod. She had never lived outside a city before, and she was shocked by how much she loved it. She began to garden, and her poetry stayed political but also began to bring in images of the natural world.

In 1976, she published Woman on the Edge of Time, a work of speculative science fiction about a working-class Latina woman who is committed to an insane asylum, and whose experiences with time travel lead her to understand that her actions will influence the direction of the future. It became regarded as a feminist classic of science fiction.

After her mother died in 1981, Piercy became newly interested in Jewish faith, particularly in Reconstructionist Judaism. She said: “The seasons are very vivid and real to us. Living seasonally is part of what I love about Judaism, as well as the tradition of social conscience, and the historical, religious, and spiritual aspects of Jewish holidays.”

Her books include the novels Braided Lives (1982), He, She and It (1991), and Sex Wars (2005), and the poetry collections The Moon Is Always Female (1980), The Art of Blessing the Day (1999), and most recently, Made in Detroit (2015).

Oklahoma! opened on Broadway on this date in 1943. It was based on a play called Green Grow the Lilacs (1930), by Lynn Riggs. Though the play, which was about settlers in the Oklahoma Territory, featured some old folk songs, it wasn’t a musical of the Broadway variety. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were both admirers of the play, and they had both independently tried to adapt it to the musical format, but their respective songwriting partners — Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern — weren’t interested. So Rodgers approached Hammerstein about it. Usually musicals were made up of fairly thin and joke-riddled plotlines that only served to string together the most important element: the songs. But Rodgers and Hammerstein were both committed to making the songs fit the story, rather than the other way around. One of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, as well as one of its most successful partnerships, was born of their collaboration.

Nobody expected the show to do very well, but Oklahoma! was an immediate smash hit, and the first big Broadway blockbuster. It ran for over 2,200 performances. One of its stars, Celeste Holm, was not surprised at its success. A gypsy fortuneteller had told her that someone with the initials “R.R.” would change her life. “She said, ‘I see you surrounded by dancing cowboys,’” Holm later recalled. “It was the silliest thing I ever heard. I didn’t think a thing about it — until opening night, when I looked around and realized, Oh my God, there are the dancing cowboys!

On this day in 1951, the Remington Rand Corporation signed a contract to deliver the first UNIVAC computer to the U.S. Census Bureau. UNIVAC I (which stands for Universal Automatic Computer) took up 350 square feet of floor space — about the size of a one-car garage — and was the first American commercial computer. It was designed for the rapid and relatively simple arithmetic calculation of numbers needed by businesses, rather than the complex calculations required of the sciences.

The computer first came to the notice of the general public in 1952, when CBS used one to predict the result of the presidential election. UNIVAC correctly picked Eisenhower and predicted his electoral count within 1 percent, but the network didn’t release the results until after the election was called, so as not to affect the outcome.

It is the birthday of Ukrainian-born Russian humorist, novelist, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol (books by this author), born in the Cossack village of Sorochintsy in 1809. His mother was a descendant of Polish nobility, and his father was a poet and playwright. As a boy, Gogol helped his uncle stage Ukrainian plays in his home theater, and he also discovered he had a gift for mimicry, so he considered becoming an actor, but his audition was unsuccessful.

While attempting unsuccessfully to land a civil servant job in St. Petersburg in 1828, he remembered a poem he’d written in school, and published it himself, hoping to gain fame as a poet. It was badly received, even ridiculed, and so he bought up all the copies himself and burned them. Then he absconded to Germany with the money his mother had given him to pay the mortgage on her farm.

Eventually, he returned to St. Petersburg and got a government job. He also began writing stories of his childhood memories of Ukraine, combining realistic portrayals of the landscape and peasants with fantastic folkloric tales of witches and devils. In 1831, he published these tales in a two-volume collection called Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanki. The short-story form was still very new, and this, combined with his vivid portrayal of Ukraine, caused a sensation. Poet Aleksandr Pushkin was one of his first admirers and mentors.

In 1834, Gogol was given a position as assistant professor of medieval history at St. Petersburg University, a position for which he was utterly unqualified. He lectured by regurgitating a list of historical facts, or mumbled unintelligibly, or didn’t show up at all. During final exams, he wrapped his head in a handkerchief and pretended to be disabled by toothache, allowing his colleagues to administer the exams. He managed to pull it off for a year, relying largely on his excellent storytelling skills, before he admitted defeat and resigned his post.

In 1835, he returned to literature, producing several St. Petersburg stories over the next seven years. He also wrote a play, The Inspector General, which opened in 1836 and which he felt was greatly misunderstood. It’s not surprising that he was unhappy with the harsh reaction of conservative critics, but he was also annoyed with the praise of the liberals, which he felt was misguided. He left the country and spent most of the next six years in Europe, where he produced his most famous work, Dead Souls (1842). He began the novel in 1835, on the suggestion of Pushkin, and envisioned it as a kind of Dante’s Inferno, in which God would use Gogol’s talent to guide Russians to a right way of living. He planned two more volumes to echo Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso, and show the redemption of the protagonist, Chichikov, but though he labored on the second volume for 10 years, it was never completed, and he felt God had abandoned him.

Today is the birthday of philosopher René Descartes (books by this author), born in La Haye en Touraine, France (1596). He’s been called the father of modern philosophy, but he considered himself a mathematician and scientist. He became interested in philosophy when he heard that the Church persecuted Galileo for his scientific theories. Descartes realized some of his own theories were also controversial, so he wrote a book called Discourse on Method (1637), about the necessity of doubt in scientific inquiry. He also wrote about beginning to doubt everything about his life, even the fact that he existed at all. But in the process of doing so, he realized that he couldn’t doubt the existence of his own thoughts, and he produced his most famous line: “I think, therefore I am.”

It’s the birthday of the poet Andrew Marvell (books by this author), born in Winestead, England (1621). He was a politician as well as a poet, and served under Oliver Cromwell during the period of the English civil war. Although he wrote several scathing satirical verses about the political upheaval of his times, his job was too public for him to safely publish them, so most of his work was published after his death. He’s now considered one of the best English poets of the 17th century.

His most famous poem is “To His Coy Mistress,” about a man trying to convince a young virgin to sleep with him. It begins, “Had we but world enough, and time, this coyness, Lady, were no crime,” and contains the lines, “The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace.”

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