Crossing the porch in the hazy dusk
to worship the moon rising
like a yellow filling-station sign
on the black horizon,
you feel the faint grit
of ants beneath your shoes,
but keep on walking
because in this world
you have to decide what
you’re willing to kill.
Saving your marriage might mean
dinner for two
by candlelight on steak
raised on pasture
chopped out of rain forest
whose absence might mean
an atmospheric thinness
fifty years from now
above the vulnerable head
of your bald grandson on vacation
as the cells of his scalp
sautéed by solar radiation
break down like suspects
Still you slice
the sirloin into pieces
and feed each other
on silver forks
under the approving gaze
of a waiter
whose purchased attention
and French name
are a kind of candlelight themselves,
while in the background
the fingertips of the pianist
float over the tusks
of the slaughtered elephant
without a care,
as if the elephant
had granted its permission.
“Candlelight” by Tony Hoagland from Donkey Gospel. © Graywolf Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered the antibacterial properties of penicillin. He was born in Lochfield, Scotland, in 1881. He came into his lab one morning in 1928 to discover he'd left the lid off of a petri dish containing a Staphylococcus culture. The culture had become contaminated by a blue-green mold, and Fleming noted that right around the moldy spots, the bacteria were no longer growing. He isolated the mold and determined it was Penicillium notatum. His first thought was that it would be useful as a surface disinfectant, and he later proved that it was effective against bacterial influenza. He later said, "One sometimes finds what one is not looking for."
It's the birthday of Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (books by this author), born in Lincolnshire, England (1809). Tennyson showed early promise as a poet, writing a 6,000-line epic when he was only 12 and publishing a book of poetry with his brother when he was only 17. After being forced to leave Cambridge because of his father's death, after receiving some particularly negative reviews, and after the death of his best friend, Tennyson fell into a period of depression. "I suffered what seemed to me to shatter all my life so that I desired to die rather than to live," he said of that time, during which he refused to publish anything for ten years. When he finally put out his next book, titled simply Poems, it established his career immediately and brilliantly. He went on to succeed William Wordsworth as Britain's poet laureate, and Queen Victoria conferred on him the title of baron, arguably making him the first poet ever to sit in the House of Lords based solely on the merit of his verse. In fact, his fame at the time was probably only eclipsed by that of the prime minister and the queen herself.
On this day in 1786, Scotland's beloved poet and bard Robert Burns (books by this author), best remembered for romantic classics like "Auld Lang Syne" and "A Red, Red Rose," stood before his church a third and final time as public penance for "antenuptial fornication" with Jean Armour.
Pregnant with fraternal twins she would name after herself and Robert, Armour had been hustled off to stay with relatives in another town when her parents learned of her condition earlier that spring. Her father, hoping there was still time to snag a suitor with better prospects than the penniless Burns, destroyed a document the poet had given Armour promising marriage. But it was all for naught when the local church caught wind of the scandal. Armour officially acknowledged her pregnancy and named Burns as the father.
Whether or not Armour was coerced, Burns declared all this a "desertion" on her part, and stood before the church the required three times to receive a certificate declaring him a single man. Burns may have had motives beyond feeling jilted; letters he sent friends that summer suggested he'd already found a new paramour and may have impregnated her too. In any case, there was at least one other illegitimate child to provide for: "Dear bought Bess," as Burns called her, a daughter born to a servant girl shortly before he'd taken up with Jean Armour. When the publication of his first book seemed likely, Burns, fearing the Armours would make a claim on his future earnings, turned his estate over to his brother to ensure Bess would be taken care of.
Burns left for Edinburgh and found success — with both poetry and women — in the months that followed the birth of the twins. He returned to town less than a year from the day he'd been declared a single man, and Jean Armour's parents, impressed by his new wealth, received him with open arms. So did their daughter Jean, and she became pregnant with a second set of twins.
Eventually — despite claims that he would never again extend her the offer, despite calling her "ungrateful" and "foolish," despite comparing her to a "farthing taper" next to the "meridian sun" of another woman he was busy wooing — Burns married Jean Armour. She bore his philandering with patience and apparent good cheer, just as she continued to bear him children — the ninth was born on the day of Robert Burns' funeral in 1796. "Our Robbie should have had twa [two] wives," she is said to have exclaimed upon taking in one of his illegitimate daughters to raise.
For all his affairs, Burns was also dealt with rather leniently by the church, which had the custom of making men in his circumstances sit on a "creepie-chair," or a low stool reserved for public humiliation. When Burns reported for penance on this day 225 years ago, he was allowed to stand in his usual pew.
Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare died on this day in 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare's child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.
Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only "my second-best bed." Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it's an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.
There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare's sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns — a Shakespearian favorite — that could identify the subject as his wife: "hate away" for "Hathaway" and "And saved my life" for "Anne saved my life."
Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate'
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.'