Sunday Apr. 9, 2017

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The Choir Singing

From the balcony of the Thetford Hill
First Congregational Church
I look down at the choir singing
the adoration of Christ their Lord
the high foreheads of the older women
shine      why!      that’s the very condition
of my own forehead which seemed in the
bathroom mirror to appear increasingly
intelligent this morning      the delicate
daily hair loss contributing to the
reality and appearance of wisdom

“The Choir Singing” by Grace Paley from New and Collected Poems. © Tilbury House Publishers, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Two funeral services were held for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author) on this date in 1968. King had been assassinated in Memphis on April 4, the day after he gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking garbage collectors. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he had said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” Twenty-four hours later, King was dead, shot by James Earl Ray as King left his motel room to go to dinner.

The first funeral was a private ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King had been a senior pastor. Tens of thousands of people made their way to Atlanta to pay their respects to the civil rights leader. Hotels were soon booked to capacity, so many mourners were given lodging in churches, colleges, and private homes. Georgia governor Lester Maddox barricaded himself inside the State Capitol, surrounded by armed guards in riot gear; he ordered them to shoot anyone who tried to get in the building. Maddox initially refused to fly the state flag at half-staff, but later complied. Although over a hundred other American cities experienced riots, Atlanta was peaceful.

After the private funeral, King’s casket was loaded onto a rugged farm wagon that was drawn by two mules. One hundred and fifty thousand mourners followed the procession down the four-mile route to Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, for a public funeral. Thousands more lined the parade route’s side streets. At Morehouse, former college president Benjamin Mays said: “Martin Luther faced the dogs, the police, jail, heavy criticism, and finally death; and he never carried a gun, not even a knife to defend himself. He had only his faith in a just God to rely on.”

It’s the birthday of French poet Charles Baudelaire (books by this author) (1821), who once said, “A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counterparts.” Baudelaire is most famous for his collection of prose poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), in which he wrote about sex, death, profane love, and the city of Paris. Gustave Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary, was so enthralled by Baudelaire that he told him, “You are as unyielding as marble, and as penetrating as an English mist.”

When Les Fleurs du Mal was published, it made Baudelaire famous. There were 126 poems, six of which were about lesbianism. They were promptly deemed so obscene that Baudelaire, his printer, and his publisher were hauled into court for a one-day trial. In the end, the six poems were banned from future printings of the book and banned in France. Baudelaire was disgusted by the verdict. About the puritanical tastes of readers, he said, “Give them only carefully selected garbage.” Almost a hundred years later, in 1949, the judgment of obscenity was finally reversed and the poems restored.

Baudelaire scratched out a living writing art reviews and articles, and translating American writer Edgar Allan Poe’s works into French. He became addicted to laudanum, then opium. He became so ill that he moved in with his mother.

The last two years of Charles Baudelaire’s life were spent in semi-paralysis, in an aphasic state. He died in 1867 at the age of 46. Most of his poetry was published after his death, and sold well, and his mother was able to clear his debts. She said, “I see that my son, for all his faults, has his place in literature.”

It’s the birthday of J. William Fulbright, born in Sumner, Missouri (1905). A U.S. senator from Arkansas, he gave his name to the Fulbright Scholarships, which provide for the exchange of students and teachers between the United States and other countries.

It’s the birthday of Eadweard Muybridge (books by this author), born in Kingston upon Thames, England (1830). He immigrated to California in the 1850s, where he took up photography and quickly became one of the first internationally known photographers. Between 1867 and 1872, he took more than 2,000 photographs, many of them views of the Yosemite Valley.

It was Eadweard Muybridge who designed a new camera that could take a picture in one-thousandth of a second. To test his improvement, he set up 24 cameras along a racetrack with trip wires to pull the shutters. With those cameras, he managed to take a series of pictures of a horse galloping, proving for the first time that all four of a horse’s hooves will sometimes be off the ground at the same time.

On this day in 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 Confederate troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the American Civil War.

That morning, the two sides fought a battle at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. As Lee crested the hill with his troops, he realized that they were severely outnumbered by Union soldiers. His General confirmed his fears of imminent defeat in a letter to Lee to which he responded, “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Lee and Grant then exchanged their own letters arranging the terms for surrender. Grant generously allowed Lee to choose the location for discussion, and Confederate troops went looking for a suitable place. They happened upon the homestead of Wilmer McLean, who showed them to a run-down, unfurnished house on his property. The soldiers refused the lackluster building for such a momentous occasion, so McLean offered his own house up.

When the generals met, the contrast in appearance was stark. Lee, standing a full six feet tall and 16 years Grant’s senior, donned a new uniform, silk-stitched boots, a felt hat, and a jewel-studded sword. Grant arrived in a mud-splattered uniform and boots, with tarnished shoulder straps. The two men had fought alongside each other in the Mexican-American war two decades prior, and Grant noted, “I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.” To which Lee replied, “I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.”

Rather than imprison the Confederate men in their defeat, Grant acted magnanimously for the good of a newly reunited Union. He allowed the men to return home, sparing their pride by allowing them to keep their arms and their horses for their upcoming spring planting. He also offered 25,000 rations to the soldiers, who had been starving without rations for several days. When Grant’s men began celebrating, Grant ordered them to stop. “The Confederates were now our countrymen,” he said, “and we did not want to exult over their downfall.” From that day forward, Lee would never allow another man to speak unkindly of Grant in his presence.

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