Saturday Apr. 8, 2017

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At Quarter to Five

I was feeling lonely so
I went outside to the wind
swept yard and beyond
that to the wind-tousled outer
yard and found where last
night in the moonlight we left
two sets of boot prints, when
you stopped on your way
through the darkness to bring a
lemon bar and a movie, and
beside ours the tracks of the
smallest thing with claws, which
must have followed sometime
later. And I chased its tiny prints
and our mud-wash indents to
the far back gate and through
the gate out to where the
land is still dirt and brush
and bushes and cow
pies, my hair pinned
to my head but still blowing,
blowing, and finally a hard
breath, and I could see
through lonely to the wide
open, long blue lines of sunset,
moonlit night, the airplanes trailing
one another
down to tarmac, all those
people landing home.

“At Quarter to Five” by Angela Janda from Small Rooms with Gods. © Finishing Line Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the Greek poet Dionysios Solomos (books by this author), born on the island of Zakynthos (1798). He was the illegitimate son of a wealthy nobleman named Nikolaos Solomos and his maid. His father married his mother the day before he died, giving Dionysios his name and a portion of his estate.

Solomos went to law school in Italy, and his first poems were written in Italian, not Greek. He became well known in Italian literary circles, and joined Greece’s flourishing literary culture when he returned to Zakynthos in 1818. He was eager to write poems in his native language, but it was difficult for him at first, because he had studied in Italy and wasn’t familiar with Greek literature. Solomos had great respect for the Greek poetic tradition, but he wanted to write his poems in the contemporary language he heard all around him, not the purist, archaic form that was the usual poetic language. He was the first Greek poet to do so, and as a result, his work is the foundation for later generations of Greek poets. He’s considered the national poet of Greece, because of his influence on Greek poetry and because — inspired by the Greek Revolution of 1821 — he wrote “Hymn to Liberty.” It was translated into other languages and helped make Solomos famous outside of Greece. The first four stanzas of the poem eventually became the Greek national anthem.

After quarreling with his brother over money, Solomos moved to Corfu. He found that his new home suited him in its solitude, its literary community, and the quiet pace of life. Later in his life, Solomos returned to writing poems in Italian, and died of a stroke in 1857.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Barbara Kingsolver (books by this author) born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). She grew up in rural Kentucky and spent part of her childhood in the Congo, where her father was a physician and the family lived without running water or electricity. Both experiences left her passionate about social justice and biodiversity, issues that she explores in all her novels, especially The Poisonwood Bible (1998) — and Flight Behavior (2012), which tackles the effects of global climate change on monarch butterflies. In her memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007), she described how her family moved from Arizona to a farm in Virginia, and spent a year growing all their food, from tomatoes to raising chickens and turkeys.

Today is the birthday of investigative journalist and frequent New Yorker contributor Seymour Hersh (books by this author), born in Chicago in 1937.

Hersh has a long history of unveiling government and military scandal. He first gained notoriety in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War for exposing the My Lai Massacre cover-up by the American government. He received a tip from a writer at the alternative news weekly The Village Voice that an Army lieutenant was facing a court-martial for murdering Vietnamese civilians. In fact, hundreds of civilians were assaulted and killed by U.S. soldiers who had come upon their village at breakfast time in March of 1968. When Hersh uncovered the event, it drew global condemnation and a sharp decline in American support for the war. The public began to demand full withdrawal of troops. Hersh was awarded the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for the story.

Hersh also reported on the Watergate scandal alongside Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, which led to a follow-up book about Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration (it won Hersh the National Book Critics Circle Award). Likewise, Hersh was one of the Iraq War’s most outspoken critics during the Bush era. In 2004, he wrote at length about American troops’ abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib site near Baghdad.

It’s the birthday of Harvey Cushing (books by this author), scientist and “father of neurosurgery,” born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1869. Cushing pioneered the use of X-rays in the diagnosis of brain tumors, and developed methods to improve patient survival after major brain operations. He was the first to describe Cushing’s disease, caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. As well as being a talented surgeon, Cushing was also a fine writer. He was awarded the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for biography for a book about the life of Sir William Osler, an early figure in modern medicine, titled The Life of Sir William Osler (1925). Cushing was a Nobel Prize candidate a total of 38 times.

It’s the birthday of editor and publisher Robert Giroux, born in New Jersey (1914). He wanted to be a journalist, but as a student at Columbia he became interested in literature, inspired by the professors Mark Van Doren and Raymond Weaver. Weaver was the first person to read the manuscript of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd in 1919. This left a mark on Giroux — he liked the idea of being the one to discover a literary masterpiece.

The first major author that Giroux discovered was Jean Stafford. While traveling by train to Connecticut, Giroux took Stafford’s manuscript at random from his briefcase, and became so absorbed in reading it that he rode past his stop. When he got to know Jean Stafford, she introduced him to her then little-known husband, Robert Lowell, whose first collection of poems had been published privately by a small house and had gone largely unnoticed. Giroux snatched him up, and he became one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. Lowell then introduced him to a young woman named Flannery O’Connor, whom he also published.

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