Wednesday Nov. 9, 2016

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Creature to Creature

Almost too late to walk in the woods, but I did,
anyway. And stepping aside for a moment
from the shadowy path to enter
darker shadow, a favorite circle of fir trees,
received a gift from the dusk:

a small owl, not affrighted, merely
moving deliberately
to a branch a few feet
further from me, looked
full at me—a long regard,
steady, acknowledging, unbiased.

“Creature to Creature” by Denise Levertov from Sands of the Well. © New Directions, 1996. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

On this day in 1989, the leader of the East German Communist party made a quiet announcement that the Berlin Wall would be opened for “private trips abroad.” Within days, millions of East Germans flooded into West Berlin, and citizens began to pull the wall to pieces. Fireworks went off, people from all over Europe jammed the checkpoints and drank champagne, and the East German police and the West German police traded caps.

Today is the birthday of the American astronomer Carl Sagan (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1934). He wrote more than a dozen books, taught astronomy at Cornell, and consulted on several NASA projects.

He was one of the first “celebrity scientists,” a role that has since been filled by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, who was once Sagan’s pupil. Sagan served as a consultant on Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show. He wrote a novel, Contact (1985), which was made into a film in 1997. And he created one of the most popular documentary series ever: Cosmos, a 13-part series for PBS. Sagan hosted the show and explained the most complicated of astronomical concepts so that laypeople could understand them. It was so popular that a porter at Union Station in Washington, D.C., refused Sagan’s tip, saying, “You gave me the universe.”

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass (1938). Hitler and Joseph Goebbels used the assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew as an excuse to organize a “spontaneous” riot. Goebbels told an assembly of National Socialists that “the Führer has decided that [...] demonstrations should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.” Throughout Germany and parts of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Nazi Stormtroopers and Hitler Youth put thousands of synagogues, homes, businesses, and schools to the torch — and blamed the Jews for the damage they caused. They smashed windows, looted shops, dragged Jews from their homes, and desecrated graves. The government gave instructions to firefighters not to intervene, and told local police to round up as many young Jewish men as their jails could hold. It was the first mass incarceration of Jews by the Nazi government, and so many people consider Kristallnacht to be the beginning of the Holocaust.

It’s the birthday of American poet Anne Sexton (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1928), and best known for her raw, deeply personal poems that examined sexuality, addiction, and mental illness. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 for her book Live or Die.

Sexton grew up comfortably, but her homelife was a shambles. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother was abusive. Sexton had a hard time concentrating in school; her teachers told her parents she was hopeless. Many doctors think she probably suffered from bipolar disorder, which didn’t have a diagnosis in the 1950s and ’60s. Her parents sent her away to boarding school when she was a teenager. Later, she told her friend, the poet Maxine Kumin, that the only thing she learned at boarding school was how to make a perfect white sauce.

She modeled in Boston and got married at 19. She had her first manic episode in 1954 and tried to kill herself. A therapist in the hospital told her to try writing poetry, so she did. She said, “I kept writing and writing.” It was during a poetry workshop at Boston University that she met fellow poet Sylvia Plath, who became a good friend for a time. They used to go for drinks at a bar after class. Sexton said, “We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric bulb, sucking on it.”

Her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, came out in 1960 and caused a sensation. She’d written openly about mania, womanhood, and sex. And her friend Maxine Kumin explained the uproar by saying, “Women are not supposed to have uteruses, especially in poems.”

Anne Sexton committed suicide in 1974.

It’s the birthday of Irish playwright Hugh Leonard (books by this author), born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin (1926). His mother gave him up for adoption; he was raised by the Keyes family and went by John Keyes Byrne. Hugh Leonard was a pen name — he first made it up as the name for a character, Hughie Leonard, in one of his first plays. After the Abbey Theatre rejected the play, he started using it as his pen name.

His plays include Stephen D (1962), based on novels by James Joyce; The Poker Session (1964), The Au Pair Man (1974), and A Life (1981). He is most famous for his autobiographical play Da (1973), about a playwright who goes back to Ireland to make funeral arrangements for his adopted father, a gardener. When Da came to Broadway, it won numerous awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play. It was made into a film in 1988 starring Bernard Hughes and Martin Sheen.

Leonard also wrote a regular newspaper column. He mostly did book or theater reviews, with some restaurant reviews, and plenty of gossip. He called one prominent theater critic “a diarrheal horse’s backside” and another “an incubus.” He wrote of George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man: “Shaw’s methods were those of a lunatic chef. In act one, he poured half of his ingredients into the cooking pot; in act two, he added the other half and gave the mixture a stir; and in act three, instead of serving the dish, he turned off the gas and sat around telling the diners how delicious it was.”

He wrote a lot about Dalkey, the seaside town in Ireland where he grew up. He said: “The conversation in pubs, say the advertisements put out by the Tourist Board, is sparkling with epigrams. This is fiction: What you get is one monologuist waiting for another monologuist to pause for breath.”

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