On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln – while attending with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, a performance of Laura Keene’s play, Our American Cousin – was shot in Ford’s Theatre in Washington.
DC by actor John Wilkes Booth. Walt Whitman’s famous elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” commemorates the nation’s grief at the epic loss of Lincoln and the 1,700 mile journey of the funeral train bearing the president’s body from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois where he was interred.
Also on April 14, in 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage. “The Convergence of the Twain,” the famous elegy by Thomas Hardy was penned to commemorate what has become, like Lincoln’s assassination, a mythic and mythologized tragedy.
The elegy has a bit in common with the occasional poem – which is, of course, a poem written for a distinct occasion. In fact, greeting cards usually contain a bit of verse that is occasional in nature: birthdays, anniversaries, various rites of passage, etc. For instance, Richard Blanco, mentioned in my April 9 post, composed a poem for the occasion of President Obama’s second inaugural. Just as publicized, however, as Blanco’s poem, was
What follows is an occasional poem that I’m sending today to my beloved great nephew in Pittsburgh, Joshua Joseph Reese, upon the occasion of his 9th birthday.
The Boy with Bees in His Hair
(for Joshua on his 9th Birthday)
“ … and through her midnight hair, lively with bees.”
“The Girl with Bees in Her Hair”
— Eleanor Wilner
We pass through the entrance
of Penn State’s Palmer Museum
of Art. On either side
is a Nittany lion paw –
just the paw, claws curiously
retracted, each large as a small
airplane – on a massive granite plinth.
I tell him there’s a Picasso in here,
but that’s little solace.
Six years old, in his necktie,
he dutifully takes his place
as he does habitually among adults
at adult functions, perfectly
composed, still – already
he knows silence is strength –
and listens to Eleanor Wilner’s poems.
When she announces she will read
“The Girl with Bees in Her Hair,”
he lights up and whispers,
“The girl with bees in her hair,”
already turned to metaphor,
to myth, for his own head
is crowned with an intricate world
of golden hair. From the stage,
Eleanor hears the little voice,
and finds him glowing in the vast hall,
his head a ball swarm of honey bees.
She catches his eye,
says directly to him something
the rest of us cannot decipher,
then brushes at her own weir of hair,
as if combing from it bees,
and he does the same
as if it had all been foretold.
As she reads the poem,
he recites it soundlessly with her,
his lips moving over each syllable,
Here are links to Eleanor Wilner and her poem. And here is Eleanor reading at Penn State on the evening referenced above. You can catch the very instance that spawned my poem for Joshua at the 4:35 mark.
Today is baseball great Pete Rose’s birthday. There’s a new book out, by Kostya Kennedy, Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, which discusses Rose’s rather Aristotelian plummet and, of course, the ongoing debate as to whether he belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Here’s a review from The Boston Globe by Allen Barra.
Another significant baseball milestone took place on April 14, 1955. Elston Howard became the first African American to don a New York Yankees uniform.
National Library Week started yesterday. Please visit and support your local library and send roses to the librarians (they know everything). Where would we be without our libraries?