May 22, 2006
Poem: "Fireflies" by Richard Newman from Borrowed Towns. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Tonight my yard is full of fireflies
a glitterfest of green, blinking by hundreds,
exactly like last year, when she and I
drove out into the Missouri countryside
to talk about our marriage. It was thick
with greenery. The air was hot and thick,
and we had decided to try and stay together,
though by first light she'd changed her mind again,
and, to be honest, our eleventh hour
hope and promise lacked the weight of truth.
We wandered off the rocky dirt road
over weeds and brambles, through branches
and spiderwebs, and pressed into a clearing,
and it was like a pocket in the darkness
that surrounded usthe misty night
backlit with thousands of glittering fireflies
bettering the stars. It was a mating dance,
and we gazed into a sputtering green sea
of desiresuch irresistible beckoning.
Ours was, tooa death-dance of mating,
a slower, indecisive tarantella,
and she asked me never to write about this,
but I knew then that I had nothing to lose,
that at that moment there was nothing I wanted
more than to write about the fireflies.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of journalist and cultural critic Garry Wills, (books by this author) born in Atlanta, Georgia (1934). He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. He said, "[I was raised as] a Catholic cold warrior, praying after Mass every day for the conversion of Russia." His father was an appliance salesman who believed that reading was a waste of time, and he used to pay Wills not to read.
Wills couldn't stop reading, though. He got a job writing for the conservative National Review, but during the 1960s, he started traveling around the country, writing about protests and race riots. He began to argue against the Vietnam War and for federal support of civil rights. He continued to call himself a conservative, but other conservatives didn't think so.
His first important book was Nixon Agonistes (1970), about Nixon's 1968 campaign for the presidency. Since then he has written more than twenty more books, about religion, Shakespeare, the Kennedys, the Declaration of Independence, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, The Gettysburg Address and the papacy.
The critic John Leonard said, "Books fall from Garry Wills like leaves from a maple tree in a sort of permanent October."
It's the birthday of novelist and nature writer Peter Matthiessen, (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). His father was a successful architect, and Matthiessen grew up in an affluent area of southwest Connecticut. He hated the stifling atmosphere of country clubs and private schools, and he became obsessed with nature. He kept a secret collection of poisonous copperhead snakes in his bedroom and charged local kids money to see them.
He served in the Navy during World War II, where he managed the Navy's boxing team and wrote sports articles for the Honolulu Advertiser. He studied at Yale after the war, and published his first short story in the Atlantic Monthly while he was still in college. Later that year he traveled to Paris, where he and two other young writers, Harold Humes and George Plimpton, decided they were sick of having their work rejected by literary magazines, and so they started their own. They called it The Paris Review, and it went on to become one of the most influential literary journals of the second half of the twentieth century.
Matthiessen published two novels, Race Rock (1954) and Partisans (1955), but they didn't make much money, so he began working as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Long Island. Working on a boat brought him closer to nature than he'd been since he was a child, and he realized that what he really wanted to write about was nature.
He took off on a trip across the United States in his Ford convertible, with a shotgun and a sleeping bag, looking for places where certain American animals were dying out: the bear, the wolf, the crane. His journey became the subject of his book Wildlife In America (1959), which was one of the books that helped launch the modern environmentalist movement in the United States.
Matthiessen said, "There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."
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