Friday Feb. 26, 2016

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Guide to the Other Gallery

This is the hall of broken limbs
Where splintered marble athletes lie
Beside the arms of cherubim.
Nothing is ever thrown away.

These butterflies are set in rows.
So small and gray inside their case
They look alike now. I suppose
Death makes most creatures commonplace.

These portraits here of the unknown
Are hung three high, frame piled on frame.
Each potent soul who craved renown,
Immortalized without a name.

Here are the shelves of unread books,
Millions of pages turning brown.
Visitors wander through the stacks,
But no one ever takes one down.

I wish I were a better guide.
There’s so much more that you should see—
Rows of bottles with nothing inside,
Displays of locks which have no key.

You’d like to go? I wish you could.
This room has such a peaceful view.
Look at that case of antique wood
Without a label. It’s for you.

“Guide to the Other Gallery” by Dana Gioia from 99 Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1917 that the first commercial jazz record was recorded, by the Original Dixieland Jass Band. It was released by the Victor Talking Machine Company. The A-side record was called the “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step,” and the B-side was the “Livery Stable Blues.” On each side of the record, next to the spindle hole, was written in small print: “For Dancing.” The record was a huge commercial hit, and helped create a national market for jazz over the years to come.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band was a group of five white musicians from New Orleans who played the clarinet, piano, drums, trombone, and cornet. They had gained a following performing New Orleans music in Chicago and New York City, where they had a residency at Reisenweber’s restaurant. At Reisenweber’s, they attracted big crowds to dance to their music; the band’s leader, Nick LaRocca, would step off the stage and demonstrate how to dance to jazz.

With the release of this new record, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band billed themselves as the Creators of Jazz. This label was hotly disputed, and many in the New Orleans musical community felt that the band members were not especially talented, but were able to get a record and attention because they were white. Until the end of his life, LaRocca insisted that he was personally responsible for creating jazz — he referred to himself as “the Christopher Columbus of Music” and “the most lied about person in history since Jesus Christ.”

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band also recorded “Sensation,” “At the Jazz Band Ball,” “Clarinet Marmalade,” and “Tiger Rag.”

On this day in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill to establish Grand Canyon National Park. The park includes more than 1 million acres of land in northwestern Arizona, most famously the colorful, deep, 227-mile-long canyon shaped by the Colorado River over millions of years.

Native Americans had lived in and along the Grand Canyon for thousands of years before the first Europeans — a group of Spanish explorers — showed up in 1540. After that initial visit, the area was barely explored by white people for about 300 years. In 1857, a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempted to explore the canyon, which was literally a blank spot on maps; he crashed his boat early on, but he brought back the first sketches of the canyon. He wrote: “The region is, of course, altogether valueless. [...] Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado river, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed.” In 1869, the one-armed geologist and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell led an expedition down the entirety of the canyon in four rowboats. It was Powell who first referred to it as “the Grand Canyon,” and the name stuck.

In 1919, 44,000 tourists visited the new national park. These days, about 5 million visit each year.

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world: and that is an idea whose time has come.” That’s French novelist Victor Hugo (books by this author), born in Besançon, France, on this day in 1802. He also said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

He wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) when he was in his 20s and became a celebrity. He used his fame to advocate for political causes he believed in, like denouncing the autocratic regime of Napoleon III. He encouraged French people to rise up and revolt. Napoleon III declared Hugo an enemy of the state, but Hugo managed to flee the country in disguise just before soldiers showed up to arrest him at his home.

He went to Brussels before landing at Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, where he lived in exile for the next 20 years. There, he wrote at a fast pace. And he wrote standing up, at a pulpit, looking out across the water. He had strict minimums for himself: 100 lines of poetry or 20 pages of prose a day. It was during this time that he wrote his masterpiece, Les Misérables (1865), about a poor Parisian man who steals a loaf of bread, spends 19 years in jail for it, and after his release becomes a successful small businessman and small-town mayor — and then is imprisoned once again for a minor crime in his distant past. The book was hugely popular, and Hugo returned to Paris, was elected to the Senate of the new Third Republic, and when he died in 1885 at the age of 82, 2 million people showed up to his funeral, a procession through the streets of Paris.

At the end of Les Misérables, Hugo writes: “He sleeps. Although his fate was very strange, he lived. He died when he had no longer his angel. The thing came to pass simply, of itself, as the night comes when day is gone.”

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