Wednesday Aug. 10, 2016

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My Luck

When I was five, my father,
who loved me, ran me over
with a medium-sized farm tractor.

I was lucky though; I tripped
and slipped into a small depression,
which caused the wheels to tread

lightly on my leg, which had already
been broken (when I was three)
by a big dog, who liked to play rough,

and when I was nine, I fell
from the second-floor balcony
onto the cement by the back steps,

and as I went down I saw my life go by
and thought: “This is exactly how
Wiley Coyote feels, every time!”

Luckily, I mostly landed on my feet,
and only had to go on crutches
for a few months in the fifth grade—

and shortly after that, my father,
against his better judgment,
bought the horse I’d wanted for so long.

All the rest of my luck has to do
with highways and ice—things that
could have happened, but didn’t.

“My Luck” by Joyce Sutphen from First Words. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this date in 1519 that the explorer Ferdinand Magellan set off to sail around the world. Although he was Portuguese, Magellan had sworn allegiance to Spain, and he began the journey with a fleet of five ships and 270 men to see if he could accomplish what Columbus had failed to: find a navigable route to Asia that didn’t involve going around Africa. They set sail from Seville, heading west. After crossing the Atlantic, surviving a mutiny, and losing one ship, Magellan reached Brazil and turned south, following the coast until he came to a deep-water strait that separated the rest of South America from Tierra del Fuego. Magellan entered the strait on All Saints’ Day in 1520, so he christened it the Strait of All Saints. Later, the Spanish king changed its name to the Strait of Magellan. After sailing 373 miles in the strait, Magellan became the first European to enter the Pacific Ocean from the east, and he’s the one who named it “Pacific,” because it was much calmer than the Atlantic.

Unfortunately for Magellan, he never completed the voyage himself. The fleet stopped off in what are now the Philippine Islands, where Magellan befriended a local chief and offered to help him in his war with the natives on a neighboring island. Magellan was killed in battle in April 1521, and the remaining fleet continued on without him. They arrived back in Seville — down to one ship and 18 men — on September 8, 1522.

On this date in 1793, the Louvre opened as a public museum in Paris. The Louvre began as a garrison fortress and prison, built by Philip II on the Right Bank of the River Seine in the late 12th century. At that time, it was on the very outskirts of the city; today, it is in the heart of Paris. In 1528, King François I demolished the original building and rebuilt it as his royal residence. François was a patron of the arts and knew Leonardo da Vinci well. He adorned the walls of his new palace with many paintings, including Leonardo’s La Giaconda — better known as the Mona Lisa.

Each successive king added to the royal collection. King Louis XIV moved the royal residence to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, but chose to leave the art displayed at the Louvre. For the next hundred years, the palace housed academies of painting, sculpture, and belles-lettres; meanwhile, people began to call for a public museum at the Louvre. King Louis XV agreed to allow a limited exhibition of about a hundred pieces from the royal collection.

By 1793, the French Revolution was in full swing. The National Assembly imprisoned Louis XVI on August 10, 1792, and seized the building and its contents on behalf of the new government. The Louvre opened to the public exactly one year later, on the anniversary of the fall of the monarchy. Most of the museum’s first collection — over 500 paintings — was made up of art taken from the church, the former royal family, and other nobles. Napoleon added greatly to the collection with antiquities he plundered during his reign; many of these were eventually returned. Today, it’s the world’s largest museum.

It’s the birthday of poet Joyce Sutphen (books by this author), born and raised in Saint Joseph, Minnesota (1949). Sutphen writes often about rural life, childhood, family, and love. Fellow Minnesota poet Louis Jenkins calls her “a true daughter of the Minnesota soil.”

Sutphen had an idyllic childhood in Saint Joseph, roaming the woods and fields near her parent’s farm with her nine brothers and sisters. She says, “We played in the hay barn doing circus daredevil tricks, sculpted civilizations in the sand pile.” There were always plenty of chores around the farm and she spent long hours picking strawberries, milking, hoeing potatoes, weeding, and driving a tractor. She loved all of it, but, she says, “My true pleasure was in books and libraries.” Sutphen devoured series like Trixie Belden and The Black Stallion, and later moved on to books by John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley.

Sutphen earned a PhD in Renaissance drama from the University of Minnesota. In 1990, she was overseas, on a break from her studies, when she began to consider a life not just of studying poetry, but also of writing it. Away from her husband and children, she found herself with time, and her own room, and she found herself writing nonstop. She said: “It was so amazing. I got a little more rest, and I became a different person. I just expanded, and the poetry was there, like an untapped thing I turned on.” Those early poems formed the basis for her first collection of poetry, Straight Out of View (1995).

Sutphen is now a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. On being both a Shakespearean scholar and a poet, Sutphen says, “I like thinking about literary work, but with the time I have, I like writing poems.”

Sutphen is the author of several books of poetry, including Coming Back to the Body (2000), Fourteen Sonnets (2005), First Words (2010), House of Possibility (2013), and Modern Love & Other Myths (2015). Her book Naming The Stars (2004) won the Minnesota Book Award in poetry. In 2011, she was appointed poet laureate of the State of Minnesota by Governor Mark Dayton.

On writing poetry, Sutphen says: “Poetry makes the world real for me [...] in the end, it isn’t hard. When I sit down to write a poem, one thing just leads to another.”

Today is the birthday of novelist Suzanne Collins (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut (1962). Her father was an Air Force pilot and Vietnam War veteran. He also taught history in college. “I believe he felt a great responsibility and urgency about educating his children about war,” Collins later recalled. Her father would take her and her siblings to battlefields, and tell them the whole history of the war from its first inception to its ultimate conclusion. His lessons stuck with her.

Years later, with a TV-writing job and a successful children’s book series called The Underland Chronicles (2003–2007) under her belt, Collins was flipping channels on the TV late one night. She was struck by the similarity between reality TV and the coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war,” she later said. “I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way.” It made her think of reading the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as a kid. In the myth, Crete keeps the citizens of Athens in line by requiring them to send 14 of their sons and daughters to fight the Minotaur. “The message is, mess with us and we’ll do something worse than kill you — we’ll kill your children. And the parents sat by apparently powerless to stop it. The cycle doesn’t end until Theseus volunteers to go, and he kills the Minotaur.”

Collins turned that reflection into book series: a dystopian trilogy about a future North America in which young people are forced to fight to the death for their country’s amusement. The Hunger Games — the first book in the trilogy — was published in 2008.

Today is the birthday of poet and playwright Laurence Binyon (books by this author), born in Lancaster, England (1869). He was deeply affected by the First World War, and though he was too old to serve, he is best remembered for his poem For the Fallen, which is often recited on Remembrance Sunday in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. He wrote it in 1914, sitting on the cliffs of Cornwall and looking out to the sea.

An excerpt from For the Fallen:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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