American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

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Of True Work

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Lucy Larcom (1824-1893)

To celebrate May Day and mark a tentative return to the pleasurable labor of this blog, I thought to share a passage from Lucy Larcom’s unjustly neglected An Idyl of Work (1875), a long poem in blank verse — or mostly in blank verse; a small number of ballads, hymns, sonnets, and the like are embedded in the narrative.

For a few weeks now, I have been rereading the Idyl, taking notes on the complexities generated by its simple story — a simplicity long denigrated by those who judge a narrative entirely by its plot — and I hope at a later date to write about the text at length. For now, let me introduce and comment upon a single passage, a quiet moment in the story, in which a great many of Larcom’s themes — labor, poetry, memory, nature, religion, vocation — are woven together, with an ease that is at once a crucial aspect of the narrative and a fitting confirmation of the justness of Larcom’s argument.

Set in the 1840s, An Idyl of Work concerns the material, moral, intellectual, and emotional lives of five women laboring in one of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. To speak of a weaving of themes in this context is thus to situate the labor of writing within a factory of the imagination; is to equate Larcom’s narrative facility with the skills of her mill girls. Saying so might seem to be a cheapening of what the poem celebrates, a generalizing of the factory that empties out mill work — and the poem — of its historical specificity. But this equation of one kind of work with another is how Larcom celebrates factory labor. Lowell’s mills were famous in their own day as sites of literary activity, as represented in The Lowell Offering, “A Repository of Original Articles, Written by Females Employed in the Mills.” The journal was founded in 1840 and continued for five years, “a life span” — as Sylvia Jenkins Cook notes — “almost identical to that of the Dial.”[1] Nor was the former journal overshadowed by the latter, not during their years of mutual operation. Praised by Charles Dickens in his American Notes, the Offering was as much a part of transatlantic literary culture as the organ of Transcendentalism, a fact alluded to in the Idyl in Book X, in a conversation that moves easily from Brook Farm to the equally profound experiment of Lowell.[2] Thus one of the five women, Eleanor Gray, says of another, Esther Hale: “Esther, and our one little room, is more / To me than ten Brook Farms.”[3] And soon after, another of the five, Minta Summerfield, says this in support of Eleanor’s statement — addressing the aristocrat Miriam Willoughby, “[a] lovely gray-haired … / … single woman with a mother’s heart” (104-5):

“[D]o you know, Miss Willoughby,,
[Esther] studies History, and German, too,
And Moral Science, somehow, between work;
And — do not mind her threatening shake of head —
She can write prose and poetry; I’ve seen both
In the ‘Offering’ — you know the magazine
That the girls publish. …”

Dedication page for An Idyl of Work

Larcom knew whereof she spoke: she herself had been a contributor to the Offering, having gone to work in the mill at age 11. But her equation of writing and factory work was not limited to formal publication; active reading, energetic conversation, and the life of the mind were also involved. As Mary Loeffelholz notes in her fine essay on the poem, “it is the mill girls’ improvised technologies of literacy, not the technologies of manufacturing, that occupy the foreground of An Idyl of Work.”[4] In this sense, the poem, untroubled by the ordinary concerns of labor literature — and so apolitical to some readers — is implicitly engaged in seizing the means of production. Not the production of cloth, but of people; a democratic nobility of working-women.[5]

This seizing occurs above all through education, in language. Larcom’s use of protest words is pointed when she has Esther say, in the midst of the conversation cited above:

“I came to agitate this very theme, …
I long for — what I know not! — to strike out
For something new, — to learn what’s in me. Work?
As well quit living as quit work, and yet
Heads like to be employed, as well as hands” (138, emphasis added)

— which is Larcom’s argument in nuce.

But the conversation in Book X is not the passage I wanted to give for May Day. In keeping with Larcom’s emphasis on mental occupation, I thought instead to share a still moment from Book III. Here Esther, who, in addition to her intellectual virtues, looks out for the other women, has gone to comfort Ruth Woodburn, first met in Book II, a stranger whose “words, /[whose] every tone, showed culture” (we learn in Book VII that Ruth writes poetry), and who seems to Esther and the others “as one by trouble stupefied” (30). At this point in the narrative very little is known of Ruth, but the biblical origin of her name — made explicit in the passage below — suggests a story of loss, fidelity, and wandering.[6] As if in response to the biblical suggestion, Esther, contemplating the stranger, lets her mind wander, so that “Ruth” becomes quite naturally a quality of existence that pertains to Esther’s own life:

Poor Ruth! There was no need
Of many words. To Esther’s pleasant voice,
She yielded, like a child, and let herself
Be dressed, and led to Esther’s room, and laid
On Esther’s bed, who sat beside her there,
With kind pretence of book and sewing-work…,

Ruth lightly dozed. Esther, intent to keep
The slumberer undisturbed, let drop her work,
And yielded herself partly to her book
(Poems of Wordsworth, Eleanor’s New-Year’s gift),
And partly to the south-wind’s tenderness,
While memory led her back beside the sea,
Where she had played with many little ones
In childhood, on a sunny homestead-slope.
The deep, eternal murmur of the waves
Upbearing on its monotone the song
Of bluebird, wren, and robin, blending all
In a wild, sweet entanglement. Home-dreams,
As in all womanly souls, made undertone
To her life’s music. But her hopes and plans
And fancies were a garden builded in
Behind great walls of duty. Her true work
She sought the clew of, here, ‘mid endless threads
Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.

Not always to be here among the looms, —
Scarcely a girl she knew expected that;
Means to one end their labor was, — to put
Gold nest-eggs in the bank, or to redeem
A mortgaged homestead, or to pay the way
Through classic years at some academy;
More commonly to lay a dowry by
For future housekeeping. But Esther’s thought
Was none of those; unshaped and vague it lay, —
A hope to spend herself for worthy ends.
Aliens were in her childhood’s home. No past
Could be revived for her, and all her heart
Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field,
A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.
Whatever work came, whoso crossed her path,
Lonely as this pale stranger, wheresoe’er
She saw herself a need, there should be home,
Business, and family. She raised her eyes,
As her soul said Amen to this resolve,
And saw Ruth languidly peruse her face
Through mists of thought; who murmured “Read aloud.”

A smile from Esther answered. (33-35)

Mind amongst the Spindles: A Selection from The Lowell Offering, a Miscellany Wholly Composed by the Factory Girls of an American City (London: Charles Knight & Co., 1844)

Reading Larcom’s poem through our own mists of thought, we might surmise, before coming to the end of this passage, that Esther, wisest among the girls, is the biblical Naomi to Ruth’s Ruth, though Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, is not figured, or not primarily, as a caregiver, but is featured instead as one to whom care is given. In this sense, Esther — a queen in the Bible — is more Ruth-like than Ruth Woodburn. Which is precisely what makes Esther a queen among the mill girls: her ability to establish “home, / Business, and family” wherever she sees “a need.” She is a queen who labors, without thought of the reward Ruth receives in the Bible. As Larcom puts it in a passage that gives me a pang whenever I read it, “No past / Could be revived for her, and all her heart / Went forth into the Future’s harvest-field, / A Ruth who never of a Boaz dreamed.”

How noteworthy that “Business” comes between “home” and “family” in Esther’s resolution (a prayer of sorts, since her soul says amen to it). Work in this Idyl (a pun, as Loeffelholz notes, on idle) has an ambiguous role, at once dividing life and joining its different parts together. One way to read this poem, then, is as a pilgrim’s progress in which the search would lead from work as division to work as joining. That quest is hinted at in the passage above, in Esther’s dropping of her “sewing-work” to muse upon the nature of her own “true work,” a musing that is itself modeled on sewing-work: a search for clues “‘mid endless threads / Shaped from crude cotton into useful cloth.”

Esther’s prayer-like resolution brings a similar moment to mind from Book VI, a more literal entangling of manual and mental labor. Here Eleanor, sitting by her factory window, turns from troubled thoughts (inspired, like Esther’s, by concern for another) to her work at the loom, taking comfort from some surreptitious reading:

The shuttles clattered on. The red rose leaned
Out toward the wonder of the open sky;
And Eleanor leaned out too, and longed for light
That souls might see by. Bending then again
Over her work, she spread a little book
Open, beneath a warp-fringe from her loom, —
A book of hymns she loved; and as she toiled,
Her voice made music, hid within the noise, —
A bird’s note in a thicket; and her heart
Rose, with her voice, in singing that was prayer. (83)[7]


1 [Back to text] Sylvia Jenkins Cook, Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration (New York: Oxford UP, 2008), 41. Reading the Offering and Dial in relation to one another (Cook neatly calls them “two regional yet curiously cosmopolitan little magazines”) rectifies the more partial accounts of literary and labor historians, the former represented for Cook by Lawrence Buell, the latter by Philip Foner. Her book also includes a chapter on Larcom’s Idyl.

2 [Back to text] Charles Dickens visited the mills during his 1842 tour of America, noting in his subsequent account: “I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.” And he adds: “Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.” American Notes, ed. Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 78-79.

3 [Back to text] Lucy Larcolm, An Idyl of Work (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875), 139. Further references to the poem will be given parenthetically.

4 [Back to text] Mary Loeffelholz, “‘A Strange Medley-Book’: Lucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work,” The New England Quarterly 80.1 (March 2007): 22.

5 [Back to text] This democratic nobility is the first subject of conversation in the poem. In Book I, the girls argue playfully over the meaning of lady, with Esther — described as “a walking dictionary” — citing the original meaning, “Giver of loaves,” so as to give “excellence and sweetness” as he definition: “‘Lady,’ though / Can slip its true sense, leaving an outside / Easy to imitate” (15).

6 [Back to text] Like Ruth in the Bible, who supports herself and her mother-in-law by going to work in the fields, Ruth Woodburn, who describes herself when first met as “homesick,” is, in her own words, “a hireling” (30).

7 [Back to text] There is a passage in Larcom’s autobiography that reads like a postscript to this passage; it speaks, in any case, to the poetry-labor relationship so central to the poem:

Since I am writing these recollections for the young, I may say here that I regard a love for poetry as one of the most needful and helpful elements in the life-outfit of a human being. It was the greatest of blessings to me, in the long days of toil to which I was shut in much earlier than most young girls are, that the poetry I held in my memory breathed its enchanted atmosphere through me and around me, and touched even dull drudgery with its sunshine.

A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1889), 134.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

Lines of Inquiry

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Eliza Richards

A few weeks back, I spent some time with “Poetry, Journalism, and the U.S. Civil War” by Eliza Richards, part of a special issue on nineteenth-century American poetry (ESQ 51.1-4). Richards begins with an essay on the war news by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (whose prose writings on the Civil War are key texts in my view — and not only mine: Tyler B. Hoffman, Alice Fahs, and Franny Nudelman make canny use of him in scholarly works that I much admire).[1]

Here are two important sentences from Holmes that Richards cites, the second with a little abridgment (the date refers to the South’s attack on Fort Sumter):

Now, if a thought goes round through the brain a thousand times in a day, it will have worn as deep a track as one which has passed through it once a week for twenty years. This accounts for the ages we seem to have lived since the twelfth of April last, and, to state it more generally, for that ex post facto operation of a great calamity, or any very powerful impression, which we once illustrated by the image of a stain spreading backwards from the leaf of life open before us through all those which we have already turned.

The previous illustration to which Holmes refers is a passage from The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858):

A great calamity … is as old as the trilobites an hour after it has happened. It stains backward through all the leaves we have turned over in the book of life, before its blot of tears or of blood is dry on the page we are turning. For this we seem to have lived…. After the tossing half-forgetfulness of the first sleep that follows such an event, it comes upon us afresh as a surprise, at waking; in a few moments it is old again, — old as eternity.

Holmes belongs, clearly, to a small number of theorists whose models of the mind look forward to Freud. And like Freud, Holmes was a medical doctor. This surely gave his models a clinical authority to readers of the time. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 27, 2010 at 9:16 am

Poetry Is Like Revolution ― It Grubs in the Earth…

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My attention has been drawn and quartered these past four weeks, so I haven’t had a chance to post since the year began. But I do have thoughts accumulating in my head, and hope to write some of them down. Here’s an example, a footnote of sorts to an unwritten discourse:

All poetry is of its historical moment; that’s a tautology. Where poems may differ is in their degrees of access to the past and future. And in the readers for whom that access is discernible.

Written by Ben Friedlander

January 28, 2010 at 8:58 am

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Songs of the Diaspora (part two)

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Back in August I was definitely fooling myself, thinking I could write about Yiddish poetry while trying to pack an apartment — and without sustained access to a library. Now I am probably fooling myself again, thinking I can pick up where I left off . It’s tempting, in fact, to say, “the hell with it”; “let it all hang.” This blog was meant to be a record of distraction. When distraction becomes obligation, it’s time to play hooky, right? Hooky from hooky, as it were … or maybe not, since that would mean going back to school.

Anyway, for good reason or bad — or just because — I’ve gone ahead with part two, half a conclusion to my reading of  Alice Stone Blackwell’s Songs of Russia (1906), focusing now on the first of the two Yiddish poets.

Part one is here. Part three to follow.

representing-190Since abandoning these notes in August, I’ve acquired Marc Miller’s Representing the Immigrant Experience (2007), a study of Morris Rosenfeld (I’m still looking for good source material on David Edelstadt). Miller’s book doesn’t mention Blackstone’s anthology, so I don’t feel entirely superseded … but I do feel superseded a little. My one consolation: Miller answers a question dogging me while I wrote part one. “Did Rosenfeld write either of his two poems in Russia?” The answer, I now know, is nyet. His earliest poems date from after his arrival in the U.S. (heretofore, the best I’d been able to ascertain was that his first publications came after his arrival, not quite the same thing).

Rosenfeld was already in his twenties when he left the Russian empire for good, so it’s not surprising that both of his poems, though written in the U.S., retain a Russian perspective, which certainly invites a reader to see them as Old World creations (and nothing in Blackwell’s anthology suggests otherwise). The first, “The Jewish Soldier,” recalls the 1877 Siege of Plevna; the second, “On Ocean’s Bosom,” concerns the flight of Jews across the Atlantic … but with a twist. This twist — reverse emigration — is not revealed until the 20th and 21st stanzas.

The poem divides roughly into three sections. The first (stanzas 1-9) gives the setup: a ship at sea, in terrible danger from storm (1-4); awful noise from the passengers (5-6); inexplicable calm from two men in steerage (7-9). Next comes the speaker’s questioning of the two men (stanzas 10-14). Finally, after a pause in which the setting is again described (stanza 15), the men explain themselves tearfully (16-24): they are Jews, and though they have nothing to look forward to in Russia, save pogroms, they are leaving America; not of their own free will, as with the speaker, but from poverty.

Morris Rosenfeld (from the first volume of his collected works, 1908)There is, perhaps, an autobiographical element in this encounter: Rosenfeld came to America for six months in 1882, returning briefly to Russia before the draft forced him to flee for good. When he made his own reverse voyage, it may well be that he met men like those in the poem. Does it make a difference, then, that he only wrote the poem after reversing his reversal? Only if we take his speaker’s voluntary return to Russia as a sincere preference for the Old World on the part of the poet. A reading of that sort (especially in the context of Songs of Russia ) might well admit an inference of Russian patriotism — an inference turned ironic when we learn more about the poet.

Ironies notwithstanding, the poem is indeed a song of Russia, also of America. And also, emphatically, of the diaspora: a protest against dispersal, international in its address. A reader’s appreciation of all this requires, however, a little context. Blackwell’s sophisticated readers no doubt brought that context to their reading. But as the book and its historical moment receded into memory (and then out of memory, into the archive), this preparation for understanding became less likely. I take my own rough understanding as typical: I get the general idea, but the fine points escape me. I did not know, for example, that the two Jews are not returning to Russia (as I at first presumed) because they find poverty more threatening than the pogroms. Their departure is involuntary for a more concrete reason. As explained by Abraham J. Karp, “The two Jews were turned back by the March 3, 1891, immigration law which barred entry to ‘paupers or persons likely to become a public charge.’” The poem, then, has complexities, but they’re frangible. Our care for them is a direct function of how much we know. Read the rest of this entry »

Parker’s Kaleidoscope

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Theodore Parker at Age 39

In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period.  A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.

But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.

For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination. Read the rest of this entry »

While Shoddy’s on the Brain

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To mark Maine’s ignoble defeat of the Gay Marriage law, here’s a song from another era, about another war that extended “from Gulf to Maine” (the war stretches even further today). As partial explanation of what’s meant by the chorus — and why it pertains to the present moment — here are some passages from an article by E. P. Whipple in The Atlantic Monthly (1871). The article begins in the Civil War, with the profiteers who grew fat on government money:

Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally left naked to their enemies and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word shoddy, flew into general circulation, to embody the soldiers’ anathema on the soldiers’ scourge.

Then Whipple continues:

But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing? Is it not this, that it will not wear? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now; it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences? … The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod.

And more:

The meaning of common sense, then, is plain; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense.

— Detestable thinking certainly won yesterday.

“Shoddy on the Brain” is not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In denouncing the profiteers, it more or less dismisses the aim of stamping out slavery. Or anyway, it dismisses the notion that this is the actual aim. But after two editorial verses, the song veers elsewhere.  The song itself is shoddy! Ending in a church, in marriage.

Anyway, for me today, shoddy is indeed on the brain.

The image comes from the Library of Congress American Memory website, from the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. I found the Whipple article in a second collection: The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.

Written by Ben Friedlander

November 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Paying Major Heed to Minor Poets

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Or not minor, no, definitely not, just underappreciated. Or better: insufficiently understood …

A few days ago Ron Silliman linked to a recent post of mine, Paying Little Mind to Major Poets. Today he has a response (link here). It’s a thoughtful note, and I’m thankful to Ron for working through my remarks so carefully, even if he does focus on the effect (my insistence on the importance of Marianne Moore — and dislike of others — and the rewriting of history that proposes), ignoring what I said about the cause (reading’s affective resistances and attractions, themselves historicizable, and the potentially distorting effects they have on understanding). The short answer, though, is that Ron is right: I am, at bottom, hallucinating a world — a future world from which the past looks very different than it does today.

The issue for me is when such hallucinations, which is to say errors, become legitimate revisions of understanding. Is the dividing line purely subjective? Or is it a matter of polemical interpretation? Or something susceptible of verification? If the last, what else could this verification be, if not the work done as a result? For instance, if Language Poetry is a reading of the New York School in which Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer are, counter-intuitively, more central than Berrigan, Berkson, and Padgett, what might the test of that reading be, if not Language Poetry itself? (And if you think, as I do, that the first three names are as significant as the last three, then Language Poetry has gone far toward passing the test, even if you don’t think you like it.) [1]

But beyond the issue of error vs. understanding, there is a subsidiary issue of how. How is it that the line gets crossed? How does it happen that an eccentric personal preference becomes the eccentric preference for a whole subculture, and then, under certain circumstances, the central preference for culture at large? The most famous example of this unlikely trajectory is Eliot’s reevaluation of the metaphysical poets, which became a modernist preference, and then, by way of New Criticism, part of a new hegemonic theory of poetry. Was that hegemony a distortion, or a legitimate revision of understanding? Or can we have it both ways?

Those last questions are deeply interesting to me. They go to the very heart of my present interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. How could they not when I speak of that century as “The Age of Whitman and Dickinson,” even as I try to map a lost landscape in which Whitman was marginal and Dickinson invisible?

Can one accept the present’s view of the past and still inquire into the past’s own view of itself? Or to put this another way: Can one eat the fruits of distortion, and then — fortified — go out and chop down the tree? And still have fruit the next season? Probably not …

Or maybe so! If we throw away the core, letting the seeds take root …

Anyway, go read Ron’s response, if you haven’t already. (I love his analogy to birdwatching.)


Regarding Moore herself: I’ve written before about her importance; the essay in which I did so (which incorporates, btw, a brief statement by Ron!) was published in Critics and Poets on Marianne Moore: “A Right Good Salvo of Barks,” edited by Linda Leavell, Cristanne Miller, and Robin G. Schulze. Much of the essay is available through Google Books (but not, alas, the pages with Ron’s statement; link here).

As an addendum to Ron’s note, though, let me add that the modernism I see with Moore at the center has nothing to do with her social relationships. I see her as the first American poet to make “the linguistic turn” (as it came to be known), and one who did so without ever reducing language to words and grammar. Rhetoric, she understood, is as intrinsic to language as any of the more material elements (such as letters and sounds); and though she did on occasion succumb to rhetoric — conceiving of readers in the old-fashioned way, as an audience to be swayed — her best work, composed with found language, demands a new kind of reader. In this sense, the difficulty of her work supports an entirely different pedagogical mission than that of Eliot or Pound.


1 [Back to text] I am thinking here of Ron Silliman’s anthology In the American Tree (1986), which includes Coolidge, Greenwald, and Mayer but not Berrigan, Berkson, or Padgett. That reading of the New York School was specific to a certain historical moment, though perhaps it would still hold true for Silliman and others who might have shared it. In any case, it is this notion of centrality (and others like it from my early education as a poet: Duncan’s insistence on H.D., Creeley’s insistence on Zukofsky, the Language Poets’ insistence on Stein) that I had in mind when I made my claim for Moore.

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 28, 2009 at 7:30 am