Archive for February 25th, 2021

“Get in the dumpster with the hat and the dog.” And Ferlinghetti did.

Thursday, February 25th, 2021
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Photographer Margo Davis and the late poet-activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday, Feb 22, at 101, go back a long way. From about 1969 to 1970, she rented a downstairs apartment at the City Lights founder’s “classic red” house on Wisconsin Street, in the Potrero Hills district of San Francisco.

She was building her career as a photographer. The local celebrity was a natural subject. She wanted him to use the sombrero that was hanging in his house for a photo. Ferlinghetti told her he wanted the picture to include his dog Homer. “Get into the dumpster with the hat and the dog!” said the photographer. And so he did. This is the result.

Eventually, he sold the house, but she remembered one more story about him from those long-ago days. Davis’s then-husband, Professor Gregson Davis, taught Latin and classics at Stanford. One day Ferlinghetti burst in with a magnifying glass and a dollar bill. “Can you translate this dollar?” he asked. What did he want translated? E Pluribus Unum. What else?

Postscript: Margo Davis reminds me that there is also Latin on the other side of the dollar bill, around the pyramid with the eye. If I had a dollar bill in the house I’d run and check.

And another postscript, this time from Gregson Davis, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, Duke University: On the reverse of the dollar bill there are two Latin citations above and below the pyramid: annuit coeptis (top) and novus ordo seclorum (below).  The latter is an allusion (not an exact quote) to Vergil’s 4th Eclogue: “A new order/cycle  of ages”.  I put Lawrence on to the Eclogues, which he had never read, and he immediately began composing a poem, originally called “The Nixon Eclogues,” but later published as “Tyrannus Nix.”  By the way, the top citation (which is loosely translated as “he favors our beginnings”) is inscribed in very large letters on the dome of the Capitol.  In one of the vivid mages that captured moments of the insurrection, an intruder can be seen hanging by one hand from the architrave directly under the large letters: ANNUIT COEPTIS. Ironies galore!