Tuesday Apr. 11, 2017

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Harmony in the Boudoir

After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bed and
tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything
he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each
word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more be-
hind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true
self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her.
“So you see,” he says, kicking off his slippers, “I am more than
what I have led you to believe I am.” “Oh, you silly man,” says
his wife, “of course you are. I find that just thinking of you
having so many selves receding into nothingness is very excit-
ing. That you barely exist as you are couldn’t please me more.”

“Harmony in the Boudoir” by Mark Strand from Almost Invisible. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Reprinted by permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman (books by this author), born Ellen Holtz in Newton, Massachusetts (1941).  Goodman studied history at Radcliffe, and in 1963 she landed her first job — as a researcher for Newsweek. In those days, all of the magazine’s journalists were men; women were only hired as researchers, and were only ever noticed if they made a mistake. But she discovered that she liked journalism. She went to work for the Detroit Free Press in 1965, and the Boston Globe in 1967. In 1974, she began writing the syndicated column that earned her the Pulitzer for Distinguished Commentary in 1980. She wrote about civil rights and social change.

She published her last column on New Year’s Day, 2010. She wrote: “I began writing my column when my daughter was 7, and I leave as my grandson turns 7. I began writing about Gerald Ford and end writing about Barack Obama. I began on a typewriter, transmitting columns on a Xerox Telecopier. Now I have a MacBook on my desk and an iPhone in my pocket.

“I celebrated my lucky midlife marriage in these pages, sent my daughter to college, welcomed my grandchildren, said farewell to my mother. I upheld Thanksgiving traditions in this space and celebrated them with a family that evolved far beyond my grandparents’ idea of tradition. I wrote about values and pushed back against those who believe they own the patent on this word.

“It has been a great gift to make a living trying to make sense out of the world around me. That is as much a disposition as an occupation.”

On this date in 1881, Spelman College was founded in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Founded by two white teachers from New England, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, Spelman was originally known as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, and it’s the oldest private liberal arts college for black women in the United States. Packard and Giles founded the school with a gift of $100 from the First Baptist Church of Medford, Massachusetts. They had 11 students, many of them former slaves and most of them illiterate; by the end of the first term, they had 80 students. They went back to Massachusetts to try to get more money. There, they met John D. Rockefeller. He was impressed with their vision. His wife, Laura Spelman, and her family had long been involved in the abolitionist movement. Rockefeller donated generously to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, and it was renamed Spelman Seminary — later College — in his wife’s honor.

On this day in 1945 the U.S. Army liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, a camp that was judged second only to Auschwitz in the horrors it imposed on its prisoners. It had been established in 1937, and about 56,000 prisoners died there. It was the first camp to be liberated by U.S. troops at the end of World War II. As American forces closed in on Buchenwald, the Gestapo telephoned the camp administration to announce that it was going to blow up the camp and destroy any evidence of its existence — including its inmates. The camp administrators had already fled in fear of the Allies and a prisoner answered the phone, pretending to be a camp official. He persuaded headquarters that explosives would not be needed because the camp had already been destroyed. Among those saved by the Americans was Elie Wiesel, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

It’s the birthday of poet Mark Strand (books by this author) born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada (1934), though he spent much of his adolescence in South and Central America. His father worked for Pepsi-Cola and moved the family from Cuba to Peru to Mexico. Strand once said, “I never found my own place. I really come from nowhere.” For a long time, he spoke English with a heavy French accent.

Strand’s parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he wanted to be a painter, so he enrolled in the Yale School of Art. He’d been painting since he was 13, when he did a self-portrait after copying figures from a book on Donatello, the Italian Renaissance sculptor.  Strand was a good student at Yale, though poor, and he worked as a waiter and delivered laundry to pay his way. He also started to read poetry, mostly Wallace Stevens, which led him to enroll in English courses, and his professors encouraged his writing, and he decided to become a poet. After Yale, Strand went to Italy and studied 19th-century Italian poetry. “I was never much good with language as a child,” he said. “Believe me, the idea that I would someday become a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.” He wrote steadily during the 1960s, enjoying the wild atmosphere that came with being an artist. Some people complained his poems were too intense and dark, but he dismissed his critics, saying, “I find them evenly lit.”

Strand’s books include Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964), The Continuous Life (1990), and Almost Invisible (2012). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Blizzard of One: Poems (1998) and even served as poet laureate for the United States, though he was uncomfortable with the post. He said, “It’s too close to the government. It’s too official.”

Mark Strand died in 2014. In his last years, he stopped writing poetry and returned to art, mostly making collages by hand.

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